Flooding fields to restore groundwater is a new tactic farmers are using, trying to hold onto the unusual amount of rain California got this year.
While it’s hard to believe, the intense rain and flooding that California has seen the past few months doesn’t mean their years-long drought is over. Except for the water caught in over-full reservoirs, most of that deluge will be gone by summer, returned to the sea. Groundwater reserves can’t absorb much of the excess before it’s gone, not enough to replenish what they’ve lost in the past few decades.
Farming during the drought years required pumping water from deep reserves, and wells that have functioned since the days of empire building are still dry after the flooding.
Water utility agencies have built large basins in the driest areas to try to capture all runoff and let it return to the groundwater, but those are limited in space and therefore effect.
But over a quarter of California’s land is farmland, and every level field can be, in effect, a catchment basin.
That’s why farmers like Don Cameron, a multi-crop farmer outside Fresno, is taking a year off from growing his crop to flood his fields instead. Pumping water from the nearby (and still flooded) Kings River, he’s filling his fields with water to let it soak into the soil.
“We knew long-term if we didn’t have water, we’d be out of business,” Cameron said. “We’re doing our part to protect communities downstream, but we’re also putting the water in the ground.”
There is concern that the intentionally flooded fields could flush fertilizers, pesticides, and other contaminants into drinking water sources, and so there are measures in place to teach farmers good practice. Farmland under certain usage, such as dairy lands, is ineligible, and farmers must report to the state that they are diverting water into their fields.