Ag at Large: Water solution lies underground

Ag at Large: Water solution lies underground

Report: The demand for groundwater has increased steadily as more of the state’s agricultural acreage has advanced from rangeland and field crops to permanent crops.  But the demand on the underground aquifers has come from municipal and industrial users as the population has exploded. 

While the current drought-influenced thinking causes most of us to consider how water can be better stored, conserved and conveyed, one recent report emphasizes the importance of protecting, enhancing, and using the supply below ground.

First of all, it acknowledges that much of California’s groundwater has been depleted or widely degraded, and concludes that new regulations, some of them still emerging, are resulting in a historic shift in the way the state’s agriculture sector is helping manage and protect groundwater resources.

An introduction to this University of California research document appeared in the 2015 July-September issue of California Agriculture, the university’s quarterly peer reviewed magazine. 

The body of the report was reserved for online presentation. Its author is Thomas Harter, agriculture and natural resources Extension specialist at the University of California, Davis.

The author acknowledges that the demand for groundwater has increased steadily as more of the state’s agricultural acreage has advanced from rangeland and field crops to permanent crops.  But the demand on the underground aquifers has come from municipal and industrial users as the population has exploded

Since many people have been alerted to the importance and strategic necessity of the underground water supply by recent drought-related emphasis, previous steps taken to protect the aquifers is sometimes overlooked.

Harter chronicles those, making readers aware of the many laws, regulations, organizations, and restrictions already in place.

At the same time, he points out the many reasons we have not restored those underground pools. Much of the diversion from underground replenishment has been done in the name of water conservation. Even lining with concrete the canals that used to leak water to the underground has had a part in the depletion of the underground pools.

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Charts and illustrations in Harter’s article place significant emphasis on the Tulare Lake Basin, once the largest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi (and perhaps shallowest). As an area of intense agricultural production, with and without irrigation, it no longer sends water to the aquifers below it.

The basin is perhaps the most extreme example of starving the underground.

To correct the steps that have been taken to shut off such leakage, Harter states that all associations and alliances that have been established for that purpose will have to be utilized. He cautions that it probably will be inconvenient as some popular irrigation practices are modified if not discontinued, and expensive as equipment and procedures, not all of them invented or developed yet, are applied.    

Cooperation needed

Hand wringing is not part of the solution, as Harter presents the opportunities ahead. What is a major aspect of the preservation and replenishment is cooperation. If that overrides the efforts, he believes recovery of the underground basins is entirely possible, even probable.

New techniques and tools for measuring the recovery and the streams that support it can be expected. He reminds readers of the consternation that once faced gasoline retailers as sophisticated instruments were developed that detected leakage from underground storage tanks. It was widespread and considered of little significance until the instrumentation told us otherwise.

Excavations to remove and then replace those leaky tanks were expensive. Marketing opportunities were forfeited, and customers of the affected retailers were upset. But the whole episode has been mostly forgotten or otherwise put behind us.

Harter foresees a day when the deep concerns about depleted underground aquifers and the expense and exasperation of correcting its causes are mere memories. Somewhere over the rainbow...

But a comforting word from an authoritative source may be just what is needed, today, tomorrow, and far into the less thirsty future.

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