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Efforts to recharge California's underground aquifers show mixed results

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

From extreme drought to extreme floods, this is what California is experiencing this year after a series of epic winter storms. And it's a window into the state's climate future. You see, California is trying to capture as much water in wet years like this one as it can, and its biggest storage container is underground. But as NPR's Nathan Rott reports, in the largely developed Central Valley, it's hard to figure out how to get water there.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: It seems pretty simple in theory, right? For much of the last decade of water shortages, California has drained its underground aquifers to meet the growing thirst of towns and farms, even causing the land itself to sink.

(SOUNDBITE OF VALVE OPENING)

ROTT: So now, when there's too much water, why not just put it back underground? That's what Khaled Bali, an irrigation specialist with the University of California, is trying to do at this research plot in the Central Valley.

KHALED BALI: Groundwater recharge is basically taking excess flood water and putting it in the underground aquifer.

ROTT: He suggests thinking about it like a bank account. We've long overdrawn. So now, with tons of water, it's time to make a deposit.

BALI: That we could utilize it for irrigation later on.

ROTT: The challenge is figuring out where. The state has recharge pools - places where the ground is porous, and water sinks back to the aquifers fast. But with so much water this year and only so many pools, the state is pushing another approach - flooding farms.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER FLOWING)

NICK DAVIS: Right now, we're at a 40-acre vineyard in Madera County, and these are wine grapes.

ROTT: Nick Davis is a farmer who's on board to flood fields. His wine grapes just north of Fresno are flooded. That's the water you hear in the background.

DAVIS: Think of a column of water 8 feet tall that's been landed on top of this ground and then recharge our groundwater.

ROTT: Madeira's irrigation district has been offering water to farmers here for free - an incentive for growers to do just this. But it's not a universal fix. Davis' grapevines can handle the water without dying, and that's not the case for some other crops.

DAVIS: So not everybody can do what we're doing here, but that's OK. The ones that can we need to support in a way, whether it's an incentive or a gold star or trophy, you know?

ROTT: Something, he says, to make it worth growers' time. This is something the state has been trying to figure out for almost a decade. It passed legislation in 2014 requiring local agencies to bring the state's groundwater savings account back into balance. But don't tell that to Dino Giacomazzi.

DINO GIACOMAZZI: They talk about this theoretical future where we're going to be capturing water, except for now it's here, and we're not capturing it.

ROTT: Giacomazzi is a fourth-generation farmer in the southern Central Valley. He grows almonds, corn, wheat and tomatoes.

GIACOMAZZI: For pizza sauce.

ROTT: And he's exaggerating a little about the water. California is trying to capture a lot of this year's flood waters. The state's governor, Gavin Newsom, signed an executive order aimed at fast-tracking new recharge projects. Still, in this area, Giacomazzi says...

GIACOMAZZI: The condition we find ourselves in right now is that there are, you know, billions of gallons of water just flowing right through us - right on by - and heading down and filling the Tillery Lake.

ROTT: That's the reborn lake that's formed in a long-drained basin that's now threatening communities and flooding farmland. Giacomazzi would happily take some of that water and flood his own cropland. He says many other farmers in the area would do the same. But he says there's no group or person organizing that kind of effort.

GIACOMAZZI: I mean, it's really a lack of leadership, I think, is the problem. You know, every couple of miles in this state, it's a completely different, independently-operated situation.

ROTT: That's part of what Daniel Mountjoy with the nonprofit Sustainable Conservation is trying to fix.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER FLOWING)

DANIEL MOUNTJOY: There's the opportunity upstream for us to divert water out on the farms, but nobody in this area knows what that looks like.

ROTT: His organization is working with farmers like Nick Davis to show others it can be done. But Mountjoy says there needs to be more incentives for farmers to do this.

What do you think it'll look like or should look like?

MOUNTJOY: I think it'll be a combination.

ROTT: Of water credits. You put water in the aquifer.

MOUNTJOY: As a deposit, you get more back out.

ROTT: And maybe, he says, paying farmers to flood their fields instead of growing crops, making the valley look more like it did before it was developed, to have a sustainable future.

Nathan Rott, NPR News, California's Central Valley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.