California Bureaucracy and Regulations Block Nimble Use of Flood Waters to Recharge Depleted Groundwater

(p. A15) It sounds like an obvious fix for California’s whipsawing cycles of deluge and drought: Capture the water from downpours so it can be used during dry spells.

Pump it out of flood-engorged rivers and spread it in fields or sandy basins, where it can seep into the ground and replenish the region’s huge, badly depleted aquifers. The state’s roomiest place for storing water isn’t in its reservoirs or on mountaintops as snow, but underground, squeezed between soil particles.

Yet even this winter, when the skies delivered bounties of water not seen in half a decade, large amounts of it surged down rivers and out into the ocean.

Water agencies and experts say California bureaucracy is increasingly to blame — the state tightly regulates who gets to take water from streams and creeks to protect the rights of people downriver, and its rules don’t adjust nimbly even when storms are delivering a torrent of new supply.

During last month’s drenching storms, some water districts got the state’s green light to take floodwater only as the rains were ending, allowing them to siphon off just a few days’ worth. Others couldn’t take any at all because floods overwhelmed their equipment.

. . .

The permitting process is meant to ensure that the takers aren’t encroaching on other people’s water rights or harming fish and wildlife habitats. There are meetings and consultations to hash out details, and a public comment period to hear objections. The whole process can take months. And the resulting permit allows the holder to divert water only on a temporary basis, usually 180 days, and only when specific hydrological conditions are met.

. . .

The process is too slow and cumbersome to help corral big floods that come, like this winter’s, out of the blue.

The Omochumne-Hartnell Water District, which operates along a stretch of the Cosumnes River near Sacramento, applied for a permit last August. When the storms started up in December, its application was still pending.

“It was frustrating,” said Michael Wackman, the district’s general manager. He and his colleagues called up the State Water Board: “What’s going on there? Let’s get these things moving.”

Its permit finally came through on Jan. 11, more than a week after the swollen Cosumnes had crashed through nearby levees and killed at least two people. By that point, so much water was roaring down the river that it damaged the pumps that were supposed to send it away, Mr. Wackman said.

For the full story, see:

Raymond Zhong. “In Parched California, Rainwater Keeps Rushing Out to Sea.” The New York Times (Wednesday, February 22, 2023): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Feb. 21, 2023, and has the title “Parched California Misses a Chance to Store More Rain Underground.”)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *