Last year’s groundwater recharge numbers were impressive but what about this year?

May 28, 2024
Jesse Vad, SJV Water
by Jesse Vad, SJV Water
Delano-Earlimart Irrigation District General Manager Eric. R. Quinley shows where water will flow in new recharge ponds under construction in 2021. The Delano district has invested $30 million in 640 acres of new recharge ponds. Lois Henry / SJV Water
Jesse Vad, SJV Water
Jesse Vad, SJV Water

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This current, remarkably average water year – not last year’s barn burner –  will be the true test to see how well groundwater agencies are rejuvenating the San Joaquin Valley’s withered aquifers, longtime water managers say.

Yes, 2023’s historic wet year did a lot to help groundwater levels rebound in many parts of the valley. And the numbers were impressive.

  • 453,000 acre feet of floodwater was captured for storage, according to the state’s most recent semi-annual groundwater report released this month. 
  • The valley captured 91% of the state’s annual managed recharge, about 3.8 million acre feet. 
  • Groundwater levels rose in 52% of monitoring wells and stayed level in 44%. 
  • An area of about 800 square miles saw ground uplift, 40 times more than uplifted in 2018-2022. 

But the state report notes even a record breaking wet year isn’t enough to refill the aquifers and groundwater deficit persists. 

And really, the question isn’t whether districts with groundwater plans can store water in wet years, but average to dry ones, said Eric Quinley, general manager of Delano-Earlimart Irrigation District, which has been aggressively building recharge basins and infrastructure for years. 

“Unless a single (groundwater) plan is banking on every year being as wet as it was last year, it’s not a resilient plan,” said Quinley. 

There are districts that were able to use infrastructure to move and recharge water, he said. But many others saw recharge simply because copious amounts of water happened to hit their land and are now claiming that recharge for groundwater pumping credits, he added. 

“That’s not a resilient solution,” said Quinley. 

Using recharged floodwater also brings up tricky questions about water rights and future pumping. 

“Even those with infrastructure that were able to capitalize on last year’s supply need to be careful that they don’t oversell it because much of that water didn’t even have any associated water rights,” said Quinley. “There’s a question about the ability to utilize that water from a credit perspective and actually pump it in the future.”

A good test for resilient groundwater plans would be to see who can recharge in an average water year, such as 2024 appears to be trending, said Quinley. Not many people can do that, he added. But to really make sustainability work, they will have to, he said. 

Some districts have been able to recharge this year, although the numbers pale in comparison to 2023. 

Arvin-Edison Water Storage District in Kern County recharged more than 266,000 acre feet last year, said Jeevan Muhar, engineer-manager of Arvin-Edison. This year the district is on track to recharge about 30,000 acre feet, he said. 

Last year’s amount of water helped to rebound some of the district’s groundwater levels, said Muhar.

“Last year was historic,” said Muhar. 

In Tulare County, the Lower Tule River and Pixley irrigation districts saw 411,000 and 82,000 acre feet recharged respectively. 

“The way water was managed last year was much different,” said Eric Limas, general manager for Lower Tule and Pixley. 

Limas said almost all water districts in the valley have invested in recharge in some capacity because of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA,) California’s groundwater law that aims to bring aquifers back to sustainable levels by 2040. In the past, many districts relied only on surface water supplies and pumped when they couldn’t, said Limas. That’s changing now, he added. 

But Limas also cautioned that last year should not be seen as something that will happen again anytime soon. 

“The hydrology we got last year was one of those outlier years,” said Limas. 

Limas said he doesn’t expect a similar year for another 20-40 years.

While some districts have already “fallen off the ledge,” said Quinley, Delano-Earlimart will be putting tens of thousands of acre feet of water in the ground this year. 

And that’s including after having to shut off water for about two weeks because the Friant-Kern Canal project is tying in its new canal. That project has been years in the making after the canal was damaged due to sinking ground from localized overpumping of groundwater. 

It’s an unfortunate loss of water the district will never get back, said Quinley.

Jesse Vad, SJV Water

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.

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