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Recharging the Underground Instead of Building Dams?

It takes time for water to percolate into the underground. You actually need dams for this to happen.

Jun 06, 2014

A lot of enviros are pushing the idea that we can just recharge our underground aquifers instead of building dams. We have to admit that to the untrained average citizen this probably seems like a good idea. We have all this underground capacity, why not use it instead of building new expensive dams and reservoirs?

Now, we don't know if the people proposing this idea really believe it can work, or if it's just a good line of rhetoric to use to convince people that dams are a waste of money. We tend to think the latter.

Here's the deal: when it rains, water that can't be stored flows down the rivers and out to the ocean. It takes time for water to percolate into the underground. You actually need dams for this to happen. The water can be released at a rate that meets the percolation rate. We think environemtalists understand this, but it messes up their argument against dams.

There isn't a big hole where you can dump all kinds of water as fast as you desire. It seeps into the ground slowly. We have seen this over and over again as excess water that can't be stored in dams flows to the sea because it can't percolate into the ground fast enough.

We do not have enough above ground water storage at this time to recharge the underground. They go hand in hand.

Any level headed reporter should be able to flush this idea down the drain with just a little inquisitive questioning of anyone making the proposal.


Diana Diamond column: Time to take the big picture in dealing with California's droughts

By Diana Diamond

Daily News columnist


Let's not keep telling people to conserve more water, take fewer showers or recycle their washing machine with gray water. We need to do something much more dramatic to handle what, most likely, will be continuing droughts in our arid state.

A horrible idea?

Consider that California's usable water is divided into three categories -- agriculture, which takes about 80 percent of it a year; industry and commerce, which use 10 percent; and the 38 million of us who together consume 10 percent. So percentage-wise, people don't use as much water.

Also consider that in rainy months and years, this state doesn't have the structural capacity (dams, reservoirs, etc.) to hold all the water that falls, so there is at least a 35 percent runoff into the ocean, according to Maury Roos, chief hydrologist for the California Department of Water Resources. He said fisheries also use a substantial amount of water, although some of that is recycled.


Now every drop that we save, be it from farmers or folks, counts. But we have to approach the drought problem differently. We have to save more water. The last dams we built in this state were in 1973, when our population was substantially lower.

Yet dams now have become a four-letter word. There isn't much support to build more, because the state has run out of the best sites. Plus, there is a huge environmental reluctance to do anything that will in any way hurt the ecology or the water habitat (think snail darters).

Sacramento legislators right now are going in a different direction. There are seven bills pending with some bipartisan support, and each proposes spending more money on dams and reservoirs to store mountain snowmelt, which otherwise ends up in the ocean. The construction costs could be billions of dollars.

I understand the inherent logic. We can't as a state continue refusing to build reservoirs. Logic demands we store more water. Global warming will have a substantial effect on our need for more water, so we need to compromise and come to solutions rather than have environmentalists fight farmers and the business community.

Sustainable Conservation, funded in part by the Morgan Family Foundation (Becky Morgan was our state senator for a number of years) is trying just that -- finding and promoting environmental solutions that make business sense. Recharging the aquifers is a possibility, for that requires only a small percentage of the cost of building surface structures. But aquifers can gather excess water flow only during high-water events, so they are not a panacea, according to Alex Karolyi, marketing director of the conservation group. Yet the storage capacity of aquifers is 10 times greater than surface level capabilities.

So far, most of this group's activities are pilot efforts. Yet the approach makes sense to me, because aquifers are a less expensive way to store water around the state.

Once upon a time, I envisioned cross-county pipes of whatever size that could be used to transport floodwaters across the country to California. Too expensive, I was told. Or perhaps we could build large floating basins in the Pacific to catch the storm water that we could use as needed. Also too expensive.

But we need to come up with a compromised, creative solution. For too long, we've delayed solving our water problems in this arid state.

Diana Diamond is a columnist for The Daily News. Her email is Diana@DianaDiamond.com.

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