Revving Up Recharge

$2 million grant spurs Berkeley Law center to take its water policy work national
a huge field of crops being watered

California’s tremendous thirst for water poses a grave challenge to its future, from an everyday perspective and the longer battle of combating climate change — and is a bellwether for the rest of America. A team led by our Center for Law, Energy & the Environment (CLEE) recently won a $2 million grant from the United States Environmental Protection Agency to take its longstanding work on water policy national, guiding efforts to recharge aquifers and improve groundwater sustainability.

The ground beneath our feet holds a significant portion of the Earth’s water, and is a critical source for people worldwide. California and other states where water is scarce have long tapped more groundwater — particularly for agriculture — than goes back in through the natural recharge process, in which water from rivers, lakes, streams, and rain flows into the ground.

Michael Kiparsky, founding director of Berkeley Law’s Wheeler Water Institute, leads a research team tasked with guiding groundwater sustainability improvements.

PEAK PERFORMANCE: Michael Kiparsky, founding director of Berkeley Law’s Wheeler Water Institute, leads a research team tasked with guiding groundwater sustainability improvements.

infographic for groundwater banking and for recharge net metering

Groundwater deficits have other implications, too: When the pores in the rocks, gravel, and soil we walk on are empty, it can degrade water quality and even cause the earth’s surface to sink. This damage can be permanent, making aquifers unsuitable for groundwater storage and compounding the problem.

“We made a mess of this system,” says Michael Kiparsky, director of CLEE’s Wheeler Water Institute and the grant’s lead researcher. “To manage groundwater better, you can do two things: Pump less of it, or add more water to the ground. Ideally, both are necessary.”

The idea of adding water back, known as Enhanced Aquifer Recharge, isn’t new, but many questions remain. Uncertainties include what to use for the water supply, how to match the best physical techniques to local conditions, and how to navigate water storage legalities.

Kiparsky’s CLEE team has worked on the issue for years with researchers from elsewhere at UC Berkeley and from UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, and UC College of the Law, San Francisco. The new grant will help expand the reach of that work across the country.

“It’s an opportunity to take recharge to a different scale,” Kiparsky says. “And it lets us do one of the things we do best: synthesis and integration, and the context-specific blending across disciplines that’s targeted at real-world impact.”

The grant’s main outcome is a lifecycle map for enhanced recharge, with solutions and pathways outlined to help state and local governments plan their own projects, maximizing benefits and avoiding unintended consequences. Combined with original research to fill key knowledge gaps and deep engagement with experts and stakeholders, this project seeks to catalyze adoption and diffusion of enhanced recharge to benefit water systems nationwide.

“This is just one example of how CLEE’s water team develops leading interdisciplinary solutions to build innovative and resilient water systems,” says Louise Bedsworth, the center’s executive director. “Working across the system’s complex governance, finance, and technical dimensions, it’s an opportunity to leverage their knowledge, expertise, and partnerships to implement groundwater recharge activities in other geographies and landscapes.” — Gwyneth K. Shaw