Moving some of the state’s 13,000 miles of levees back from rivers to make floodplains would allow dam operators to release more water without endangering population centers. Water percolating down through the flooded land would also help recharge aquifers, which, having been severely depleted by pumping for agriculture, are subject to a new state groundwater law requiring that they eventually be made sustainable. And the flooding could restore some of the fish and wildlife habitat that existed in California’s interior valleys before intensive farming began a century ago.
But as with everything else involving water in California, the subject of augmenting the state’s so-called gray infrastructure of concrete dams, aqueducts and other structures with floodplains and other “green” infrastructure, including better-managed watershed forests, is one of intense debate. There are concerns that new floodplains would take farmland out of production and that allowing benign flooding would reduce the amount of reservoir water available for agriculture and other uses.
“California water is complicated,” said Joshua Viers, a professor at the University of California, Merced, who was at the flooded tract last week with a team of researchers using water-sampling equipment and other instruments to monitor the changes taking place. “But I think we’re finding that there are softer paths.”