Gov. Gavin Newsom waives permits to put California floodwater underground
California’s severely depleted groundwater basins could get a boost this spring, after Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order waiving permits to recharge them.
State water leaders hope to encourage local agencies and agricultural districts to capture water from newly engorged rivers and spread it onto fields, letting it seep into aquifers after decades of heavy agricultural pumping.
“We have been hearing for some weeks now about the need for clarity around when flows can be captured for recharge. And we certainly want to make sure that we’re capitalizing on the opportunities that are provided to us this year” said Karla Nemeth, director of the Department of Water Resources. “We are really at the at the start of what will be a significant flood season.”
To pull water from the state’s network of rivers and canals for groundwater recharge, state law requires a permit from the State Water Resources Control Board and Department of Fish and Wildlife. Many local agencies lacked the permitting during January storms, but this month’s atmospheric rivers and near record snowpack promises new opportunities to put water underground.
Newsom’s executive order eliminated the need for a water rights permit for groundwater recharge if the land meets specific environmental conditions between March 10 and June 1. It also waives the need for a permit from the Department of Fish and Wildlife to alter a lake or stream bed.
A local or regional flood control agency has to delineate an area at risk of flooding. Certain land is ineligible, including farmland used for dairy production, fields where pesticide or fertilizer has been recently applied, areas that could cause damage to critical drinking water if flooded.
Land that has been out of agricultural use for three years is also disqualified to protect wildife habitat. Agencies or landowners must report where they diverted water and an estimate of the amount of flow they used for recharge to the water board.
Groundwater makes up just under half of California’s water supply on average, but as much as 58% in dry years. Aquifers up and down the state can hold more than 850 million acre-feet of water, but years of heavy agricultural pumping have severely drawn down aquifer levels.
Researchers at University of Saskatchewan’s Global Institute for Water Security recently found that groundwater losses in the Central Valley since 2003 have totaled about 36 million acre-feet. For comparison, less than 150,000 acre feet is needed to supply the city of Sacramento for a year.
The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act was passed in 2014 with the intent of curbing overpumping and stabilizing aquifer levels. But the law, known as SGMA, gives many local agencies until 2040 to achieve their sustainability goals.
The state’s water supply strategy plan calls for 500,000 acre-feet of water for conservation and recharge uses. While water agency officials did not have an explicit recharge goal for this spring, some experts warned that replenishing groundwater should not be overstated as a catch-all solution.
“There’s a lot of discussion about how important it is to recharge groundwater or floodwaters,” said Jay Lund, co-director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. “This is sort of true. It will be helpful, but I think it’s kind of oversold I don’t think we’re going to solve all of California’s water problems by this mechanism.”
Permitting isn’t the only thing holding recharge back, said Julie Rentner, president of River Partners. There could be more natural opportunities for groundwater replenishment if concrete infrastructure like weirs and levees gave rivers more room.
“It’s not water rights restrictions that are really keeping us from being able to park water in the ground. It’s that we haven’t expanded our waterways wide enough. There’s simply massive conveyance constraints that make this really, really difficult to do.”
But any water put into the state’s enormous reservoirs is a win, said Erik Ekdahl, deputy director of water rights at the State Water Resources Control Board.
“Our snowpack is unlike anything we’ve seen in kind of living memory, and I really can’t emphasize just how quickly things have changed on the ground,” he said, after an uncertain start to the winter that just kept delivering. “The opportunity to move quickly and creatively is here and I think this is a fantastic way to do it.”