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Flooding Alfalfa Fields Has High Potential For Groundwater Recharge

Flooding Alfalfa Fields Has High Potential For Groundwater Recharge

By Jeannette E. Warnert

A rigorous field study in two California climate zones has found that alfalfa can tolerate very heavy winter flooding for groundwater recharge. The research was published online Jan. 16 in California Agriculture journal.

The alfalfa research is the latest in a series of projects studying the effects of using land planted with permanent crops – including almond orchards and vineyards – to capture and bank winter storm water. Such projects have great promise but also require collaboration across multiple jurisdictions and agencies. UC Agriculture and Natural Resources vice president Glenda Humiston has made groundwater recharge on working lands and open spaces a division priority and is working with water and land use leaders around the state to facilitate it through policy recommendations and cross-agency collaboration.

Groundwater is a critical water reserve in California, particularly during droughts when surface water supplies are low. Water slowly filled California's aquifers over tens of thousands of years. Beginning in the early 20th century and continuing in the present day, groundwater has been consistently withdrawn at a higher rate that it can be replenished naturally. In 2014, the California Legislature enacted the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which requires all critically overdrafted groundwater basins to have a groundwater sustainability plan in place by 2020.

Flooding agricultural land during the winter, when surplus surface water is often available, is one promising strategy for replenishing overdrafted aquifers.

For the alfalfa flooding research, UC Davis and UC Cooperative Extension scientists flooded two established alfalfa stands, one near Davis and one in the Scott Valley, Siskiyou County, during the winters of 2015 and 2016. The sites were selected because the soils in those areas have relatively high water percolation rates.

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