March 31, 2023 — This week, Ag-Week reported on a California farmer’s effort to recharge flood water, rather than letting it flow into the Pacific Ocean.
Featured in the story is Don Cameron, who first experimented with flooding his central California farm in 2011. At the time, many of his peers thought his idea was absurd. However, state water experts now view Cameron as a trailblazer. His innovative method of controlling flooding and replenishing groundwater has become a model for other farmers to follow. He’s now known as “the godfather of on-farm recharge.”
In an especially wet year, Cameron’s operation can return 8,000 to 9,000 acre-feet of water back to the ground each month, both from rainwater and melted snowpack. By inundating fields instead of diverting precipitation into flood channels, more farmers could allow the water to seep underground for future use during drought conditions.
Cameron’s Terranova Ranch, located in the San Joaquin Valley, boasts 6,000 acres of various crops. The award-winning ranch honors sustainable development principles, producing diversified crops including a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seed crops. As to its water management, Terranova Ranch writes on its website:
Terranova Ranch has pioneered the concept of on-farm water recharge in California. For over 25 years we have been working toward recharging the aquifer below us, our main source of irrigation water.
In 2011, flood water was applied to farm fields and documented by researchers at Bachand & Associates and UC Davis. In 2012 the Kings River Conservation District (KRCD) was granted $5 million from the California Department of Water Resources along with $2 million in matching funds from Terranova Ranch to build infrastructure in order to capture and distribute floodwater to Terranova and nearby farmland for on-farm recharge. Sustainable Conservation and UC Davis have been partners in this project.
Work is progressing to implement this project which, at full capacity, will be able to recharge up to 1,000 acre feet of floodwater per day. This project will be a perfect fit with the sustainable ground water management plan for our area. More importantly, it shows Terranova’s commitment to long-term sustainability goals for farming in the San Joaquin Valley.
Copying nature by allowing water to flow across the landscape is considered the most cost-effective way to manage peak flood flows while storing surplus water for drier periods. Since the introduction of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) in 2014, California’s policymakers have been developing economic incentives for more farmers to adopt this approach. Some water districts have offered growers credits toward water rights in exchange for recharge, and pending state legislation could simplify permitting and guarantee water rights for participating farmers.
Although there is no statewide monitoring of on-farm recharge, Sustainable Conservation has been tracking four water districts in the San Joaquin Valley. As of mid-February, they recorded 260 farmers replenishing their aquifers, returning at least 50,000 acre-feet of water back into the ground. The state recently provided $260 million in grants to Groundwater Sustainability Agencies established under SGMA, highlighting the demand for such projects. However, challenges remain for growers, including access to water, avoiding harm to endangered species, and making sure that land with certain fertilizers, pesticides, or dairy farm waste is not flooded.