Water & Drought

Water managers try to bust California drought using ground game

Basins like this one east of Visalia are being filled with water to replenish groundwater supplies.
Basins like this one east of Visalia are being filled with water to replenish groundwater supplies. lgriswold@fresnobee.com

As storms hit California and the Sierra Nevada snowpack keeps building after years of punishing drought, water managers on the San Joaquin Valley floor are replenishing groundwater supplies while the getting is good.

Fresno Irrigation District, which encompasses 245,000 acres and includes Fresno, Clovis and Kerman, is urgently getting water from the Kings River, local rivers and storm runoff from the city of Fresno and running it in 600 miles of canals to replenish underground supplies, general manager Gary Serrato said.

“We have to take advantage of the opportunity,” he said. “January is the third-wettest on record. I am not complaining about any water. That’s just a blessing.”

Fresno is using Kings River water for recharge at Leaky Acres near the airport, and water is being shunted to ponding basins at the wastewater plant, said Thomas Esqueda, director of the public utilities in Fresno.

Water from the Kings River below Pine Flat Dam is being used to boost groundwater tables in all member agencies, said Kings River Water Association spokesman Randy McFarland.

“Virtually all of it is being diverted by districts and canal companies for groundwater recharge,” he said. “It’s being put into canals and basins, even little ones. The ponds are full.”

The Rockwell pond northwest of Selma that is visible from Highway 99 is full for the first time in years, he said.

We have to take advantage of the opportunity.

Gary Serrato, Fresno Irrigation District

Pine Flat Dam has been making room for possible floodwater and as of midnight Thursday, about 25,000 gallons per second were being pushed into the Kings River, according to the state Department of Water Resources.

Before Pine Flat ramped up the water going out two weeks ago, water from the Friant-Kern Canal was being put into the Kings, which could handle the extra, for replenishing groundwater. That has since ceased.

Meanwhile south of Fresno, Kaweah River water in Tulare County is running in channels for seepage and delivery to recharge basins, said Mark Larsen, general manager of Kaweah Delta Water Conservation District in Farmersville. The run started about a month and a half ago.

“Everyone is pretty much giddy compared to what it’s been in the dry years,” he said. “Recharge is good, but it’s even better to turn off the pumps.”

Boosting groundwater tables has the potential to help the new groundwater sustainability agencies meet the pending requirements of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, he said.

“Groundwater sustainability plan or not, every basin should be leveraging a wet year like this toward getting a leg up on SGMA,” he said.

Tulare Irrigation District has been running water to its recharge basins since late December, district engineer Aaron Fukuda said.

“We haven’t had a lot of water for years,” he said. The last wet year was 2011.

To spread as much water as possible, the district is giving free water to farmers who will flood their fields for several weeks, he said.

Several irrigation districts in the Friant Division of the Central Valley Project are taking Millerton Lake water to use for recharge programs, said Doug DeFlitch, chief operations officer at Friant Water Authority.

I’m excited. It’s going to help the aquifer.

Doug DeFlitch, Friant Water Authority

“I’m excited,” he said. “It’s going to help the aquifer. Everyone has taken advantage of the water. ”

Starting last month, extra water has been put into the Friant-Kern and Madera canals, he said. About 210,000 acre-feet (farmers say three acre-feet per acre per year is needed to grow a crop) has been delivered in total so far.

Snowpack in the southern Sierra is about 141 percent of the April 1 average, and the next U.S drought monitor is expected to show more improvement, but water managers are reluctant to say the drought is over.

“We’re in a good wet year,” DeFlitch said. “There’s going to be a lot of water supply available.”

Delano-Earlimart Irrigation District general manager Eric Quinley said the district has been running water since Jan. 10 and is putting most of it – about 10,000 acre-feet as of last week – into underground water banks.

“One year’s robust water supply does not mean the following years will be as robust,” he said.

But he said it seems likely water will be available into June for channel seepage and recharge basins.

Lewis Griswold: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold