Making waves

Written by Kevin Catalano

On DFA member Case Vlot’s dairy in Chowchilla, Calif., which he owns with his brother, Dirk, shifting soil has collapsed eight of the 30 wells that nourish the animals and crops on the farm. He’s also paying three times more for annual maintenance as land subsidence crushes well pipes.

“We started to notice this problem in 2012,” Vlot says, “as the ground was settling around the well casings.” 

Wells will be re-drilled, but Vlot says the waiting list for this type of project is more than one year.

Addressing the ongoing drought, the California State Legislature in 2014 passed what some consider the state’s most meaningful water regulation in the past 100 years. The law is called the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) and is an effort to begin replenishing underground water.

Over the next two years, SGMA gives farmers and other property owners a substantial stake in writing the governing rules for their particular area, which is why Veldhuis is making frequent calls and visits to officials of Merced County and the Merced Irrigation District.

“I’m having conversations with the CEO of Merced County and others about some of the challenges the government officials are facing as they try to put the groundwater rules into place,” he says. “The supervisors who have the power to make decisions don’t understand the issue. I’m not going in with an agenda, but I can help them understand the issues dairymen and other farmers are facing.”

With the law’s emphasis on local input to help determine outcomes in the groundwater management planning process, DFA is encouraging participation by members, says Francis Pacheco, vice president of membership and public affairs for DFA’s Western Area.

For DFA member Bob Kelly, who has been involved in the local SGMA effort, the new law “is not immediately going to change things, but it will eventually address overdrafting issues in parts of the state that are sensitive to this.”SGMA places a five-year deadline on completion of sustainability plans in the state’s many water basin boundaries. The plans must identify basins that are subject to critical overdrafting, along with sources of water that will replenish, or recharge, the basin.

In a manual recharging process, farmers or other land owners designate ground where excess rainwater would collect and ultimately percolate into the subsurface.

Recharging efforts that sustain the water supply are already under way at Kelly’s 100-year-old farm in Stevinson, Calif.

“Our operation is unusual because we have a canal that’s unlined and extra ground that allows us during really wet years to do some recharging on the property,” he says. “In order to do this, we take ground out of production.”

Vlot says he supports recharging efforts. 

“My neighbors and I are willing to set aside good farm ground to be used as recharging ponds when we get a lot of rain,” he says. “According to studies I’ve seen, these recharge ponds work to replenish groundwater.”

The drought carries economic consequences now and in the future.