Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources
Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources
Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources
University of California
Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources

Posts Tagged: groundwater

UC Davis to lead groundwater and irrigated agriculture sustainability study

UC Davis Professor Isaya Kisekka and students measure soil moisture content using a neutron probe at the UC Davis Agricultural Research Station in 2018.

Effort Will Develop Ways to Minimize Risk from Climate Extremes for Southwest Growers

Researchers from the University of California, Davis, have been awarded a $10 million grant by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture to find ways to sustain irrigated agriculture while improving groundwater quantity and quality in the Southwest under a changing climate.

Isaya Kisekka, associate professor of agrohydrology and irrigation at UC Davis, is leading a team of more than two dozen climate, plant and soil scientists; hydrologists; engineers; economists, educators and extension specialists from UC Davis and other institutions in California, Arizona and New Mexico. They will develop climate change adaptation management strategies that ensure sustainability of groundwater and irrigated agriculture.

Kisekka says the project team in California will work with Groundwater Sustainability Agencies to develop tools and data to enhance water management at both the farm and groundwater basin scales to improve crop production and achieve sustainability goals under the state's Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which provides a statewide framework to help protect groundwater resources over the long-term. The research team will also work with grower coalitions to achieve the groundwater quality goals of the Central Valley Salt and Nitrate Management Plan. 

“For farmers, the biggest challenge threatening their business is water,” Kisekka said. “Our project is going to develop climate-smart adaptation management practices to help growers achieve their production goals while addressing the co-benefits for the environment and human health. We are going to develop cutting edge tools to manage groundwater quantity and quality as well as study how policies impact behaviors such as water use in agriculture.”

The practices, models and tools developed will be used by growers or their advisors, policymakers, irrigation districts, coalitions and groundwater sustainability agencies to address climate change extremes such as drought or floods.

Growing dependence on groundwater

Growers have increasingly depended on groundwater during multi-year droughts and heat stress. Part of the five-year project includes looking into aquifer systems in California's Central Valley, central Arizona and the lower Rio Grande basin in New Mexico. These regions have all experienced unprecedented overdraft, which happens when more water is pumped from a groundwater basin than is replaced from sources, including rainfall.

“For a long time, a lot of farmers would use groundwater as an insurance policy whenever there was a drought,” Kisekka said. “The negative consequences of that became obvious: groundwater levels declined, we had subsidence which causes land to sink, we had deterioration in water quality and so on. What are growers going to do when we have another drought like we are now? We have to think more broadly.” 

Kisekka says they will also come up with management practices to improve soil health, develop alternative water supplies and reduce water demand so the region can continue to produce various agriculture commodities, such as vegetables, grapes and almonds.

“We grow crops in California that we cannot shift to another part of the country because they won't grow well there,” Kisekka said. “We can't grow almonds in the Southeast where they have a lot of water because they require a certain climate. We want to ensure food and nutritional security of the United States by sustaining irrigated agriculture in the Southwest.”

Project researchers will also establish innovative education and extension programs to teach students of all backgrounds and ages, as well as the public, about the importance of water in agriculture.

“Part of this is to develop educational curriculums from elementary to high school to college, where instructors can pull our modules on water management or sustainable agricultural systems and teach that in their classes,” Kisekka said.

While the depletion of groundwater supplies, among other factors, puts major pressure on agricultural operations in the southwestern region, Kisekka hopes the management practices and tools that will be developed during this project will help improve production and resource sustainability and help make California and the country more resilient to climate change. UC Davis will establish the Agricultural Water Center of Excellence as part of the grant. This unique Center of Excellence will also have capacity to support agricultural water research, education and extension activities at collaborating institutions with potential impact at local, state, national and international levels.

“We hope at the end of the day we can still grow food in California and the Southwest in general without drying out our groundwater aquifers,” he said. “We have to learn to adapt to climate change. We may not be able to stop it in the short term, but we should be able to adapt.”

Researchers from University of California, Berkeley, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, Stanford University, CSU Fresno, University of Arizona, New Mexico State University, USDA Agricultural Research Service (Sustainable Agricultural Water Systems Research: Davis, CA and Water Management and Conservation Research: Maricopa, AZ) and USDA Climate Hub are also participating in the project.

Posted on Monday, October 18, 2021 at 1:38 PM
  • Author: Tiffany Dobbyn
Tags: climate change (112), Groundwater (22), irrigation (25), Isaya Kisekka (1)
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture

UCCE director finds place among women leaders of Modoc County

UCCE Modoc County director Laura Snell looks for African wire grass, a non-native invasive annual grass populating western rangelands. Photo by Charles Post

When Laura Snell first came to the far northeastern corner of California, she was amazed to find that the Board of Supervisors in Modoc County – where cows outnumber people by a ratio of 13 to 1 – was composed almost entirely of women.

Snell, who arrived in the high desert town of Alturas in 2015 as the University of California Cooperative Extension livestock and natural resources advisor, said she now has a theory as to why.

“It's a great example of the rural and agricultural lifestyle we have here where women get involved in everything from civic organizations to local government,” she said. “In a lot of ways, there isn't a glass ceiling in an area where everyone is needed and most people are wearing multiple hats to keep the community going.”

Snell has worn the “county director” hat for UCCE in Modoc County since 2017, bringing a range of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources programs to local communities. In the subsequent years, she has established herself as one of the region's most prominent and respected voices.

Snell and student intern Illianna Termuehlen look for fairy shrimp in cold water springs on the Devil’s Garden Plateau. Photo by Charles Post

“Laura is a strong leader, an excellent communicator, and extremely knowledgeable in the fields of wild horses, groundwater, livestock and grazing – among many other topics,” said Geri Byrne, vice chair of Modoc County's Board of Supervisors (which is presently 75% female).

Snell's broad base of knowledge – as well as her bachelor's in water science and master's in agronomy, both from the University of Nebraska – have served her well in her dream job in a “one-advisor” county.

“This is what I always wanted to do – know a little bit about a lot of things and be the person who connected people with what they needed, connecting them with information, connecting them with different experts,” Snell explained.

One of her most recent accomplishments is launching UC Master Food Preserver classes in Modoc County this year. About 130 people – in a county of 9,000 – have been served by this UC ANR program, and four are on the cusp of graduating as Modoc's inaugural class of certified Master Food Preservers. The vast majority of program participants, Snell notes, have been women.

“They're not only preserving for their own families; they're also using these tools and harvesting things from their gardens and then having a value-added product to sell at the farmers market and our local food hub,” said Snell, citing one participant who learned how to make and sell celery salt.

A livestock and natural resources advisor, Snell takes blood samples from cattle to test for micronutrient deficiencies. Photo by David Lile

The contributions of women to the local economy, county leadership and organizations such as the Modoc County Cattlewomen's group continue to inspire Snell in her work – and in nurturing the next generation of leaders.

An avid participant in 4-H growing up in Story County, Iowa, Snell said one of the most fulfilling aspects of her job is mentoring the interns who come through her office, and presenting them with opportunities to learn and grow in their careers.

It was a personal connection that brought Snell to Modoc. A former Bureau of Land Management director in the county, who happened to be the father of her college friend, encouraged Snell to apply for the advisor position. So she flew from Nebraska to Reno and then made the three-hour drive north for the interview.

“I loved it; I immediately loved it,” Snell recalled. “I called my parents that night and said, ‘If they offer me this job, I'm staying.' This is it – this is what I've always really wanted to do, but not only that: this is the kind of community I've always wanted to live in.”

Accompanied by her constant companion Zuri, Snell compares private land grazed with livestock and public land used by wild horses. Photo by Charles Post

Snell – along with her canine companion, an Airedale-German Shepherd-Rottweiler mix named Zuri – have become an essential part of the fabric of Modoc County. She has provided guidance on everything from managing wild horses on the Devil's Garden Plateau to optimizing agritourism operations for greater profitability to improving the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers by alleviating regulatory burdens.

“Working in this county and for this county, for the people here, that's what fills my cup,” she said. “That's what is most satisfying about this work.”

And the county, in turn, has been appreciative of Snell's wide-ranging expertise and unflappable demeanor. According to Supervisor Byrne, Snell has been instrumental in taking on complex issues such as wild horses and the Big Valley Groundwater Sustainability Plan – four years in the making and greatly enhanced by Snell's background in water and her passion for bringing science to the people.

“Laura has a ready smile and manages to stay calm in the face of adversity,” Byrne said. “Modoc is very blessed to have such an articulate, knowledgeable, hard-working and personable director.”

Posted on Tuesday, October 12, 2021 at 10:03 AM
Tags: agritourism (50), groundwater (22), Laura Snell (5), leader (1), Modoc (1), rural (3), UCCE Modoc County (1), wild horses (3), women (3)
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture, Economic Development, Environment, Natural Resources

Dairy’s Net Zero Initiative gets boost with $10 million research grant

The new Net Zero Initiative project will examine the effects of value-added dairy manure products. Composted dairy manure used as fertilizer shown in an almond orchard. Photo by Sat Darshan Khalsa

The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research has awarded a $10 million grant to support U.S. dairy's Net Zero Initiative as a critical on-farm pathway to advance the industrywide 2050 Environmental Stewardship Goals set through the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.

In California, UC Davis and UC Agriculture and Natural Resources scientists will collaborate on the nationwide project addressing carbon sequestration, soil health and nitrogen management.

"The Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research grant in partnership with Soil Health Institute and Dairy Research Institute are funding research that will positively impact the future of animal and plant agriculture in a world with increasingly limited natural resources,” said Deanne Meyer, UC Cooperative Extension specialist based at UC Davis, who studies livestock waste management. 

Working with California dairy forage and almond producers, UC Cooperative Extension scientists and technicians will evaluate and demonstrate the impacts of using manure products as fertilizer in combination with more traditional soil conservation practices.

“With this research, there's a potential to expand the use of dairy manure products beyond forage crops to crops such as almonds,” said Nick Clark, UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor for Fresno and Tulare counties. “We expect results to demonstrate that groundwater quality and quantity can be protected and preserved, and crop yields can be maintained without increasing net greenhouse gas emissions from crop production.”

Clark added, “We look forward to working with our local producers and connecting with our national partners and collaborators to examine and demonstrate the best practical solutions that science has to offer for farming in tomorrow's world."

California dairy operators who would like to participate in the experiment may contact Clark for more information at neclark@ucanr.edu.

Data from the “Dairy Soil & Water Regeneration: Building soil health to reduce greenhouse gases, improve water quality and enable new economic benefits” project will be broadly shared among the dairy community. The six-year project will provide measurement-based assessments of dairy's greenhouse gas footprint for feed production. It will also set the stage for new market opportunities related to carbon, water quality and soil health.

“Addressing the U.S. dairy industry's emissions is a critical solution to climate change,” said FFAR Executive Director Sally Rockey. “I know dairy farmers are working hard to decrease their environmental footprint and I'm thrilled to support their efforts by advancing research needed to adopt climate-smart practices on dairy farms across the country.”

Through foundational science, on-farm pilots and development of new product markets, the Net Zero Initiative aims to knock down barriers and create incentives for farmers that will lead to economic viability and positive environmental impact.

“After six years, we will have data that accurately reflect our farms' greenhouse gas footprint for dairy crop rotations with consideration for soil health management practices and new manure-based products,” said Jim Wallace, Dairy Management Inc. senior vice president of environmental research. “We expect to develop critical insights that link soil health outcomes, such as carbon sequestration, with practice and technology adoption. This will provide important background information to support the development of new carbon and water quality markets.”  

The project will be executed across four dairy regions responsible for about 80% of U.S. milk production: Northeast, Lakes, Mountain and Pacific. In addition to UC Agriculture and Natural Resources and UC Davis, collaborators include the Soil Health Institute and leading dairy research institutions, including Cornell University, Texas A&M AgriLife Research, University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Wisconsin-Platteville, University of Vermont, and U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service (USDA ARS) Northwest Irrigation and Soils Research in Idaho.

Dozens of dairies representing climates and soils of these major production regions will participate in a baseline survey of soil health and carbon storage. Additionally, eight farms, including five operating dairies, two university research dairies and one USDA ARS research farm, will participate in the project. These pilots will be used to engage farmers in soil health management practices and monitor changes in greenhouse gas emissions, soil carbon storage, soil health and water quality. 

The FFAR grant will be matched by financial contributions from Net Zero Initiative partners such as Nestlé, the dairy industry, including Newtrient, and in-kind support for a total of $23.2 million. The funds will be managed by the Dairy Research Institute, a 501(c)(3) non-profit entity founded and staffed by Dairy Management Inc., whose scientists will serve as the project leads to address research gaps in feed production and manure-based fertilizers.

About the partners

FFAR builds public-private partnerships to support bold science that fills critical research gaps. Working with partners across the private and public sectors, FFAR identifies urgent challenges facing the food and agriculture industry and funds research to develop solutions.

NZI is an industrywide effort led by six national dairy organizations: Dairy Management Inc., Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, International Dairy Foods Association, Newtrient, National Milk Producers Federation and the U.S. Dairy Export Council. This collaboration represents a critical pathway on U.S. dairy's sustainability journey.

For more information about dairy sustainability, visit www.usdairy.com/sustainability.

Posted on Thursday, July 1, 2021 at 3:01 PM
Tags: dairy (38), Deanne Meyer (3), groundwater (22), Nick Clark (2)
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture

There’s a danger in over-simplifying California water conservation

You hear it every time drought returns to California: “Turn off the faucet when you brush your teeth.” “Collect shower water in a bucket before it warms up.”

While valuable, these tried and true drought resilience strategies can also deflect attention from the monumental challenges posed by droughts to natural areas, waterways, agriculture and people in California. Far-sighted and discerning management of the state's annual precipitation and groundwater is critical, particularly as droughts become more frequent due to climate change, said Faith Kearns, the academic coordinator of UC's California Institute for Water Resources.

“Like so many big societal problems, we don't want to get caught up believing individual actions alone will solve this problem,” Kearns said. “Conserving water in households can help people feel activated and certainly conserve some water. But, at the same time, it's not enough. We have big, systemic issues to deal with.”

California's developed water is vital to urban areas, irrigated agriculture and the environment.

Urban water use in homes, landscapes, schools and businesses amounts to about 10% of total developed water use in California, according to the Northern California Water Association. Irrigated agriculture uses 41%. The remaining 51% is used for water in rivers protected by state and federal laws as “wild and scenic,” water required for maintaining habitat in streams, and water that supports wetlands in wildlife preserves.

Traditionally, when surface water supplies for California farmers are cut during droughts, farmers pumped groundwater to bridge the gap. Over time, many of the state's groundwater basins have become severely depleted. In 2014, during a devastating five-year drought, the California Legislature passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act to regulate groundwater use in the state for the first time. The law aims for sustainable groundwater maintenance by 2040.

“We're in the implementation phase and local groundwater agencies are in various stages of developing and implementing sustainability plans,” Kearns said. “This is an opportunity for public participation to ensure all voices are heard in the effort.”

Of particular concern are underserved rural families who rely on wells for their household water. When the water table drops due to excessive pumping, the families can be left without water for drinking, washing and bathing. Small scale farmers often meet the same fate. Larger, neighboring farms may be able to drill deeper wells.

Wintertime flooding in permeable areas is one way groundwater can be recharged as it is used during the dry season. Getting access to water, developing infrastructure and flooding large farms will allow water to seep back into aquifers. Small-scale farmers can also be involved, said Ruth Dahlquist-Willard, the UC Cooperative Extension advisor to small-scale farmers in Fresno and Tulare counties.

“If there was a way to incentivize recharge on small farms, I think we could really contribute to groundwater management,” Dahlquist-Willard said. “It is not just about how we protect small farmers but also about how we involve them and have something that works for everyone's benefit.”

Fallowing land will likely be needed to meet the groundwater law's sustainability requirements. A 2020 report by UCCE specialist David Sunding and UC Berkeley professor David Roland-Holst, Blueprint Economic Analysis: Phase One Results, estimates about 992,000 acres of California farmland will go out of production, representing $7 billion in lost crop revenue and $2 billion in lost farm operating income. 

The public can support smart and equitable water management by learning about decisions being made by their own local water providers and elected government representatives that impact the future of the California water supply. UC Agriculture and Natural Resources and its California Institute of Water Resources have gathered materials to serve as a starting point for understanding and advocating for sustainable water.

Science-based drought tipsheets

Online drought and water management seminar series

The Confluence drought posts

Listen to these episodes of the Water Talk podcast:

Episode 02: Ranching and Water in California — Water Talk

Episode 09: Small Farms and Water in California — Water Talk

Episode 10: California Water Policy and Extension — Water Talk

Episode 15: Wild Horses and Water in California — Water Talk

Episode 16: Agriculture in the California Borderlands — Water Talk

Episode 21: Watering Urban Green Spaces — Water Talk

Find more on the UC California Institute for Water Resources website.

Posted on Monday, June 7, 2021 at 8:20 AM
Tags: drought (185), Faith Kearns (10), groundwater (22), SGMA (2)
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture, Environment

Flooding alfalfa fields has high potential for groundwater recharge

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.

Flooding an alfalfa field for groundwater recharge. (Photo: Andrew Brown)

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.

View a four-minute video about on-farm flooding for groundwater recharge on the UCTV Sustainable California channel. In the video, Professor Helen Dahlke discusses the work she and her fellow UC Davis researchers, UC Cooperative Extension advisors and specialists, and California farmers are undertaking to test the impacts of irrigating almond orchards in the winter to recharge groundwater.

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.

Integrated hydrologic science professor Helen Dahlke in an almond orchard being flooded for groundwater recharge.

“We found that most of the applied water percolated to the groundwater table,” wrote lead author Helen Dahlke, integrated hydrologic science professor at UC Davis.

The alfalfa endured saturated conditions in the root zone for a short time, but the yield loss was minimal.

Dahlke and her co-authors – USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service soil scientist Andrew Brown, and UC Cooperative Extension specialists Dan Putnam and Toby O'Geen and the late UCCE advisor Steve Orloff  – noted that the positive results of the alfalfa trial show tremendous potential for the state's groundwater basins. Using an index created by O'Geen that identifies the locations of California soils suitable for on-farm groundwater recharge, the scientists calculated the potential groundwater recharge. If all the suitable alfalfa acreage were flooded with six feet of winter water, and assuming 90 percent percolates past the root zone, it would be possible to bank 1.6 million ac-ft. of groundwater per year.

“For reference, the Oroville reservoir, second largest in the state, has a storage capacity of 3.5 million ac-ft.,” Dahlke wrote.

Leigh Bernacchi, program coordinator of UC Water at UC Merced, interviewed Helen Dahlke to get more details on groundwater recharge strategies for California. Read the Q&A on the UC Water Center website.

Additional reading:

Posted on Friday, January 19, 2018 at 8:41 AM
Tags: groundwater (22), Helen Dahlke (8)
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture, Natural Resources

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