March 29, 2023
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 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.
[Mike Hsu is a senior public relations representative for UCANR.]
Source: University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources
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