If governments and the private sector are going to work together in order to hedge their bets against future droughts, water storage is one place to start.
Water scarcity is one of this century’s greatest challenges as it determines whether the world can adapt to both climate change and a rising population. One region that stands out is one of the more vital breadbaskets in the U.S. Long, drawn-out periods of drought have long affected the San Joaquin Valley and its economic capital, Fresno. Struggles with drought are among the challenges this city of half a million has been facing.
Not that any sort of adversity is new to Fresno. The state’s fifth-largest city, also the 33rd largest in the U.S., hasn’t commanded much respect over the years. The city has long been endlessly mocked, including with a 1980s CBS miniseries starring Carol Burnett that poked fun at the raisin capital of the world. Rampant development, which can be seen in the strip malls and McMansion developments that have expanded the city’s reach at the expense of its historic downtown core, doesn’t do much to boost the city’s image.
Plus, with all that development, one would never guess that the city only receives a tad more than a foot of rainfall annually—homes, office complexes and shopping centers are green only because reminders of water conservation are generally given lip service here. To the visitor, sidewalk watering comes across as a favorite pastime.
But there are some things Fresno is getting right as the region grapples with water scarcity—including water storage. Drive around the city, and you’ll swing by what look like fenced-off ponds. Comprising a groundwater recharge program that has been around since the 1970s, these basins have been successful at trapping winter rains and allowing them to seep back into groundwater supplies. Only one of these recharge stations, located near the city’s airport, operates year-round; the rest are on lands leased by the local irrigation district to capture rainwater. When considering this year’s generous amount of rainfall, these recharge stations are also crucial to prevent flooding, as the city’s soil, which alternates between sandy loam and hardpan, can often transform the city’s streets into Venice-like canals after what seems like a trickle of rain.
There’s another reason why water storage is critical in Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley—or anywhere, for that matter: The valley is sinking. Countless years of drought also pushed farmers to invest in the harvesting of groundwater. If you were smart enough to launch a well-drilling business this century, most likely you’ve done quite well financially. But as a result, the region’s aquifers are becoming depleted, causing many areas to sink a few inches a year—or, in some areas, as much as two inches a month. If these aquifers collapse, say goodbye to the region’s crops that are coveted worldwide—including stone fruit, pistachios, pomegranates and almonds (shown above, blossoming during spring).
These water storage facilities stand out for another reason: Studies, including this one from Stanford University, have suggested that they are often cheaper to build and maintain than reservoirs and, of course, desalination plants. Another study by University of Texas researchers concluded over 60 percent of water resulting from river flooding in the Lone Star state could have been stored—which not only would have reduced damage from disasters like Hurricane Harvey but would have been on hand when Texas suffers another drought.
With all the talk over infrastructure investment in the U.S., one type of private sector-government cooperation needed is more investment in water storage. As proven across Fresno, these water storage sites are cost-effective, can become a seamless part of a city’s landscape—and even open up recreational opportunities. In the case of this one Fresno city park, private donations allowed this water storage facility to serve as a park – offering a template of how engineering and construction companies can work with government in order to boost their community engagement chops.
Image credit: Leon Kaye
Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.
Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.