Stanford Dole School of Sustainability researchers use airborne technology to spot groundwater recharge points

Palo Alto, Calif. (KGO) — Recently, researchers at Stanford University conducted an aerial treasure hunt in the skies of California. They use electromagnetic signals to penetrate hundreds of feet underground in search of liquid gold – water, or more precisely a place to capture and store it.

“When we look at the future of freshwater in California, it’s not necessarily less precipitation totals, but more intense storms, more severe droughts. So the idea is that when we have strong storms, we capture the floodwater, divert it to Places like this, inject it into the ground to recover from previous droughts or to prepare for the next one,” explains Rosemary Knight, Ph.D., a researcher at the Stanford Dole School of Sustainability.

She just released a new study that demonstrates the ability of airborne technology to locate what is now popularly known as the “Paleo Valley.” They are long, deeply buried riverbed channels formed thousands of years ago by the movement of glaciers that once covered the Sierra. Experts believe they’re filled with porous material that acts like a high-speed fast lane to transport diverted floodwater deep into the aquifer.

“So water managers are now looking at how they can use existing aqueducts or irrigation canals or series of irrigation ditches to get water to prime locations for recharge,” Knight said.

A major site is the ancient valley site discovered near Fresno. Kassy Chauhan is executive officer of the North Kings Groundwater Sustainability Agency and manager of the Fresno Irrigation District. Planners hope it will be possible to use the new data to help plan critical groundwater recharge programs in an area that is being hit hard by the state’s ongoing drought, she said.

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“When it rains and the rainy season comes, that’s what it’s really about … we want to be able to pump as much water as possible into the ground,” Chauhan said.

To help make that happen, Knight is using a new grant to combine aerial surveys with ground data to create an online mapping system. The goal is to help everyone from water agencies to farmers identify where groundwater recharge can be optimized.

“There’s a lot of space below the surface to store water. In some ways, the worse we have groundwater. The lower the water table, the more space we have to store water,” Knight noted.

Versions of the technique could also be used effectively on smaller areas to find optimal water recharge points in areas such as orchards or farm fields, the researchers say. Perhaps, vastly expanding the way California manages its water supply.

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