Friday, January 22, 2016

New Research Involves Renewing Groundwater Supplies, Not Filling Reservoirs

In a test on a potential new way to reduce the effects of California's recurring drought conditions, researchers are looking not to expand reservoirs, but rather find a way to funnel the excess rainwater from the El Nino winter back into the groundwater, where it can be put to better use during the drier seasons. Currently, the majority of rain runs off into the ocean, simply because a large portion of the land is covered in concrete or asphalt, which doesn't allow rainwater to permeate. Through this ongoing experiment, depicted in Geoffrey Mohan's L.A. Times article, the water is instead redirected to the fields of involved farmers, where the water is able to seep into the soil.

While creating new reservoirs and expanding existing reservoirs could accomplish the same goal, the experiment aims to show that it can be accomplished more naturally and cheaply. Simply by harnessing the power of gravity, storm runoff could be forced into irrigation channels. From the irrigation channels, several fields in succession can be watered before the rest of the runoff can make it to nearby lakes and rivers. Once upon a time, farmers used only surface water and groundwater to tend to their crops. In this day and age, the groundwater levels are so depleted, especially during drought seasons, that there isn't enough water to make that system feasible.

That system could once again become helpful for farmers and common folks alike, once the groundwater levels have been put back to normal. Through a large-scale application of the concepts present throughout the experiment, everything from wells to reservoirs could be filled with the rainwater that would normally be wasted as runoff to the ocean. Unfortunately, not very many people have volunteered to be a part of the study. Some are, quite reasonably, simply unwilling to risk their trees in the event that the experiment ruins them. More often, state or federal agencies control the water in dams and canals and put up a lot of red tape due to their worries that the water may benefit people who aren't paying for it.

The research is risky, but well worth it in the long run. The water might spur fungal disease in the trees, but it also might kill off worms and mites. The test measures whether the concentration of contaminants like nitrogen-based fertilizers increases in the total groundwater and what effects that might have on the ecosystem. In general, the experiment is looking to make sure whether this would be an effective way to store water for use in drier times. From what has been measured so far, the irrigation hasn't ruined the test trees, but it will still be a while before significant results can be found.

According to researchers' approximations, there are about 3.6 million acres of agricultural land in California alone that have the proper characteristics to make them usable in groundwater-refilling projects. The only issue is that everyone would have to work together to make this concept a reality. For the first few years, crop yields will likely decrease due to the plan, which will make many farmers want to drop out. However, if they all stick it out to the end, the groundwater levels would eventually become properly equilibrated, which would extremely dampen the effects of future drought conditions in the area. It would just take a lot of cooperation between individual farmers and governmental agencies, as well as a unified belief that renewing the environment will have far more positive effects, both economically and otherwise, in the long  run than making a quick buck today.

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