Posts Tagged: recharge
Study offers insights on reducing nitrate contamination from groundwater recharge
Light irrigation before flooding stimulates microbes to remove nitrates from soil
With California enduring record-breaking rain and snow and Gov. Gavin Newsom recently easing restrictions on groundwater recharge, interest in “managed aquifer recharge” has never been higher. This process – by which floodwater is routed to sites such as farm fields so that it percolates into the aquifer – holds great promise as a tool to replenish depleted groundwater stores across the state.
But one concern, in the agricultural context, is how recharge might push nitrates from fertilizer into the groundwater supply. Consumption of well water contaminated with nitrates has been linked to increased risk of cancers, birth defects and other health impacts.
“Many growers want to provide farmland to help recharge groundwater, but they don't want to contribute to nitrate contamination of the groundwater, and they need to know how on-farm recharge practices might affect their crops,” said Matthew Fidelibus, a University of California Cooperative Extension specialist in the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology.
A recently published study by UC scientists sheds new light on how nitrates move through an agricultural recharge site and how growers might reduce potential leaching. Researchers analyzed data from two grapevine vineyards at Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Fresno County – one flooded for two weeks, and other for four.
Understanding initial nitrate levels crucial
A key factor in mitigating contamination is understanding how much nitrate is in the soil at the outset, said study author Helen Dahlke, a UC Davis hydrologist and leader of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources' strategic initiative on water. In areas with little precipitation and cropping systems that require greater amounts of synthetic fertilizer, the accumulation of residual nitrate – resulting from nitrogen in the fertilizer not taken up by the plants – can be quite high.
“The percentage of nitrates in some soils can really increase over the years, particularly if you have many dry years in a row where you don't have access to irrigation water or natural precipitation flushing some of those nitrates out of the soil,” Dahlke said.
While intense rains in recent weeks have helped dilute nitrate concentrations naturally, farmers looking to participate in recharge during the dry years ahead should consider flooding their fields with greater volumes of water.
“If you're doing this for the first time – on-farm recharge in the winter – check your residual soil nitrate levels because if they're very high, you should apply a lot of water in order to make sure that the residual nitrate is diluted down,” said Dahlke, who also added that growers should check their soil properties for suitability of recharge projects.
She recommended using, as a “good first approximation,” the online Soil Agricultural Groundwater Banking Index map, a project led by Toby O'Geen, a UC Cooperative Extension soil resource specialist.
Researchers looking at other ways to reduce nitrates
Even before flooding the fields for recharge, there are several practices that can lower initial nitrate levels and risk of leaching. Cover crops such as alfalfa and triticale, for example, can help take up residual nitrates that accumulate from fertilizing a main crop over time.
Dahlke and Fidelibus – a co-author of the San Joaquin Valley vineyard study – both pointed to pre-flooding irrigation that encourages denitrification, a process in which soil microbes transform nitrates into gaseous forms of nitrogen.
“Those denitrifying microbes need to be stimulated to do the work,” said Dahlke. “What we have found is that if you do a little bit of irrigation before you start the flooding, increasing the soil moisture can get those microbes started and they can take out more nitrate from the soil.”
The timing and quantity of fertilizer applications are also major factors in reducing leaching. Although more growers are following high-frequency, low-concentration practices to maximize uptake by crops, Dahlke said there needs to be more emphasis on incorporating nitrogen transformation processes – such as denitrification – in the nutrient management guidelines that farmers follow.
“Implementing thoughtful nutrient management plans will play a particularly important role in participating farms,” Fidelibus added.
A more holistic view of groundwater recharge
In short, choices made during the growing season can affect those in the winter recharge season – and vice versa. For example, applying compost or other organic amendments to soil can give microbes the “fuel” they need for sustained denitrification.
“What we have found is that our denitrifying bacteria often run out of steam because they don't have enough carbon to do the work,” Dahlke said. “Like us, microbes need energy to do the work, and for microbes this energy comes from soil carbon.”
Then, adding moisture via recharge to that field with high organic content can stimulate mineralization and nitrification, processes in which microbes transform the organic nitrogen into ammonium – and subsequently nitrates – that the plants can then take up. Those naturally occurring nitrates would thus reduce the need for the grower to apply synthetic fertilizer.
“The winter on-farm recharge experiments have shown that altering the moisture regime in the winter has consequences for the nitrogen budget in the summer growing season,” Dahlke explained. “Theoretically, what we need to be doing is better integrating both seasons by keeping an eye on the soil-nitrogen balance across the whole year so that we can ensure, at the end of the growing season, the residual nitrate in the soil is minimized.”
The study, published in the journal Science of The Total Environment, was part of the post-doctoral work of former UC Davis researcher Elad Levintal. In addition to Fidelibus and Dahlke, other authors are Laibin Huang, Cristina Prieto García, Adolfo Coyotl, William Horwath and Jorge Rodrigues, all in the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources at UC Davis./h3>/h3>/h3>/h3>
Groundwater banking captures the media's imagination
UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) research on groundwater banking has been high. In California Agriculture journal, UC ANR Cooperative Extension specialist Toby O'Geen and 13 co-authors shared research on California soils that showed which areas in the state were best suited for water to be percolated down into an aquifer.
The article included a map of California with color coded areas indicating areas that were excellent for groundwater banking down to poor. The story was picked up widely by the news media.
California farmers will intentionally flood their fields this winter
Jane Braxton Little, Scientific American
For two months this winter, a team of scientists will flood almond orchards in the Central Valley to a depth of two feet by redirecting rainfall through a network of ditches originally designed to divert floodwater away. To measure success, they will then monitor how much water filters into the water table over the course of two years. If the method pans out, pear, plum and walnut tree orchards might also benefit from intentional flooding, according to a recent study led by UC ANR Cooperative Extension specialist Anthony O'Geen.
Map identifies farmland with greatest potential for groundwater recharge
Diane Nelson, UC Davis News Service
This December, O'Geen and a team of scientists - including Helen Dahlke, professor in integrated hydrologic sciences at UC Davis - will flood almond fields in the Central Valley, building on research that suggests that deliberately flooding farmland in winter can replenish aquifers without harming crops or drinking water. “Adding an extra few feet of water to even just 10 percent of California's cropland this winter could add an additional 3 million acre-feet of groundwater,” Dahlke said. “That could go a long way toward replenishing the 6 million acre-feet growers had to pump this year alone to cope with California's drought.”
UC scientists test inexpensive way to capture El Niño rains
Amy Graff, The San Francisco Chronicle (SFGate.com)
Researchers from UC Davis and UC Cooperative Extension are testing a new method for capturing some of that underutilized water by diverting it from rivers into the network of canals running through Central Valley farmland. "That could go a long way toward replenishing the 6 million acre-feet growers had to pump this year alone to cope with California's drought," said Dahlke, who's testing the technique in the field. UC ANR Cooperative Extension specialist O'Geen points out that this is a win-win for agriculture. "They're typically considered the bad guys. They're feeding the world yet they're considered the water hogs because they have to take all the water to grow the food. On-farm recharge offers the opportunity for them to offer two services — providing food and collecting water. That puts agriculture in a better light."
How California could get smarter about droughts and flooding
Nathaneal Johnson, Grist.org
Land suitable for flooding should be flat, free of contamination and clear of structures. O'Geen estimates that leaves 3.6 million acres. “A preliminary calculation based only on soil properties and crop type shows that landscapes rated Excellent or Good could be used to bank as much as 1.2 million acre feet of water per day.” UC ANR groundwater hydrologist Thomas Harter was also a source in the article. He said there are additional challenges to overcome, including reluctant farmers, variations in soil profile, red tape and a lack of infrastructure, especially on farms that now use micro sprinklers or drip irrigation systems, rather than flood.
California farmers hope to capture El Niño rains
David Dienick, KCRA 3 News
Researchers have been looking for ways to capture more runoff without relying on reservoirs. "We've never actually managed our agriculture landscapes for groundwater recharge to my knowledge," O'Geen said.
Farmers urged to flood their fields with any upcoming rain
KFBK News Radio
A soil map has been developed that will allow farmers to take advantage of every opportunity to recharge the groundwater. "Is it a managed event where we are giving a couple extra irrigations in the winter time and the wet crops can tolerate a few extra irrigations when they don't really use the water," O'Geen said.
Another study suggests flooding farmland to recharge aquifers
Tim Hearden, Capital Press
A study in Merced, Madera and Fresno counties will determine whether diverting excess river flows from winter storms to farmland successfully. In addition, O'Geen and Dahlke plan to use some of the state's 3.6 million acres of farms and ranches with suitable topography and soil conditions to recharge aquifers during winter months. Dahlke is still conducting field experiments to evaluate how much water can be recharged in a couple of weeks.
UC maps farmland that can 'bank' groundwater during El Niño rains
In response to California's withering drought and a dwindling water supply, researchers at UC Davis have identified farmland that could potentially "bank" groundwater during what is predicted to be an unusually wet winter. "A lot of growers are interested in learning how they can help improve the groundwater situation in California," O'Geen said. "The index provides details on the groundwater-recharge potential for any parcel, which you can search for by address or access using your device's GPS."