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Moving Levees Helps Recharge Groundwater, Researchers Show

April 7, 2015

Moving river levees can improve groundwater suppliesCalifornia’s groundwater is being rapidly depleted because cities and farms extract more than is replenished naturally, compacting local aquifers and decreasing groundwater supply in some places in the Central Valley.

And, it turns out, levees placed along rivers in the late 1800s and early 1900s to protect farms and cities from floods are actually hurting farmers’ and residents’ ability to access water.

But UC Merced Professor Josh Viers and colleagues found an engineering solution to improve some of the state’s groundwater supplies and fisheries — moving river levees to make room for flood waters.

“What people forget is that the Central Valley was once a swamp,” Viers said. “Before we built dams in the Sierras and channelized the rivers downstream, stream runoff from rain and snowmelt would spread out onto adjacent floodplains and recharge local aquifers. But prolonged drought and lack of floodplains have limited groundwater recharge throughout the region.”

By walling off rivers and restricting flow on floodplains, levees prevent groundwater recharge in the floodplains, Viers said. As opportunities for recharge have decreased — exacerbated by the severe drought — Californians’ dependence on groundwater has increased, creating an unsustainable situation for local communities relying on groundwater for drinking water and irrigation.

Benefits Seen During Drought

Viers, the co-director of the new UC Water Security and Sustainability Research Initiative (WASSRI), leads other UC Merced faculty members and researchers from UC Davis, Washington State University and the Department of Fish and Wildlife on a research project aimed to promote multiple benefits from engineered levee setbacks.

The researchers are three years into the four-year project, which is now being incorporated into WASSRI to set up sensor-system monitoring and devise plans for groundwater sustainability and land management throughout the Central Valley and Central Coast.

As the state struggles with a severe and lengthy drought and begins to sort out plans for the future, the data and modeling provided by researchers like Viers is rapidly becoming even more vital than it ever was.

Working on the Cosumnes River near Lodi — the Sierra’s only river without a large dam — Viers and his colleagues can study what happens to rivers, floodplains and groundwater under natural conditions. The river floods often enough that there has been no development on the nearby floodplain, so it’s the perfect place to examine groundwater recharge through a series of monitored wells.

“We see that flooding does have a net benefit, even in a drought year,” Viers said. “In wetter years, it also improves the salmon fishery, because the floodplain is like an incubator. It provides the right food and water temperature for juvenile salmon. Spending time there helps them grow larger faster, gives them places to hide from predators so there are more of them, and improves their chances of survival once they reach the ocean.”

The project takes a lot of time and money, from hiring bulldozers to move the levees to the environmental permitting required to do so. The researchers removed levees adjacent to the river that were in risk of being overtopped, but contained flood waters across an 800-acre floodplain with levees set far back from the river.

Even Small Storms Help

So far, the researchers have found that moving the Cosumnes’ levees has actually reduced flood risks for neighbors and has allowed row-crop agriculture to persist on portions of the floodplain, as well as recharging the local aquifer.

In fact, the research team estimates that February’s brief storm resulted in 100 to 300 acre-feet of recharge. While these numbers are preliminary, this recharge is roughly three times the amount of recharge that would happen from irrigation and will now happen three times more often per year on average, providing a potential 1,000 acre-feet of local storage, they said.

Other UC Merced researchers, like Professors YangQuan Chen and Marilyn Fogel, are collaborating on the project to gather data using unmanned aerial vehicles and through stable isotope analysis to monitor the floodplain’s hydrology. The information feeds into regional models for the Central Valley, allowing land and resource managers to turn data into decisions.

“We’re measuring the whole system — the groundwater, the surface water and its constituents,” Viers said. “You can’t manage what you don’t measure. So scientists from the UC are helping build a strategic base of water data and knowledge to help California and the nation achieve a water-secure future.”