Drought Coalition Will Collaborate to Protect California’s Water Future

California is in its sixth year of drought, and a swath of the state is in the worst category, "exceptional." One of its reservoirs, Lake Cachuma has nearly disappeared, with only seven percent capacity. 

Enter a new coalition of 20 organizations which will support projects to protect the state’s future through collaboration. The groups have formed the California Water Action Collaborative (CWAC) and include environmental organizations, food and beverage companies, non-profits, farmers and local water districts. 
First conceived in 2014 after a Water Action Hub meeting hosted by the CEO Water Mandate in Los Angeles, the CWAC has three priorities:

  • Build social capital for improved local water management.
  • Return water to natural systems, which includes both surface water and groundwater.
  • Drive corporate water stewardship aligned with the Governor’s California Water Action Plan.

CWAC has four initial projects, which include one called American River Headwaters. In 2015, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) helped the American River Conservancy buy a 10,115 acre forested property in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to restore forest health and resilience, reduce the risk of wildfires, and research the link between water supply and ecologically-based forest thinning. TNC is leading efforts to test how landscape-scale restoration can improve both watershed health and wildlife habitat, reduce the risk of mega-fires and potentially increase water supply. The conservation group will do research on the property to determine if ecological thinning can increase downstream water supply by letting snowfall and rain accumulate and replenish creeks and rivers. CWAC partners support the project, including MillerCoors, Nestlé, The Coca-Cola Company and Anheuser-Busch.

The property bought by TNC is directly upstream of two critical drinking water sources and hydropower for the Sacramento area called French Meadows and Hell Hole Reservoirs. Calling the property American River Headwaters, the project will act as a sort of laboratory for scientists to test landscape-scale restoration. Researchers will thin small trees and brush from dense forests to reduce wildfire risk and increase forest health, which might increase water yield in the American River watershed by up to one to three percent. 

Another project of CWAC is called Farmland Groundwater Recharge. Sustainable Conservation is leading an approach to help boost the groundwater supplies in the San Joaquin Valley, an area that is considered to be the agriculture center of the world. Six years of drought have forced Valley farms to turn to groundwater supplies and has also caused some to fallow farmland. Through the project, excess floodwater will be applied to both active and fallow farmland, allowing water to percolate down to refill aquifers. The project is supported by CWAC partners Campbell Soup Company, General Mills, MillerCoors, and The Coca-Cola Company.

The Kings River is a source of irrigation for much of the farmland in the Tulare basin region of the San Joaquin Valley and the area is facing problems with both water supply and water quality. Groundwater overdraft is a big problem in the region as farmers often choose to use groundwater rather than surface water from the Kings River to irrigate crops. The average rate of groundwater pumping in the region is 125,000 to 150,000 acre-feet a year above its sustainable yield, equaling about 10 percent of the basin’s overall average annual surface water use. The goal of Sustainable Conservation is to expand the groundwater recharge rate by encouraging farmers to apply available floodwater on their farmlands. The organization is partnering with the Kings River Conservation District to promote capturing floodwater from the Kings River to use in groundwater recharge.

Photo: The Nature Conservancy