LOS ANGELES — Facing scrutiny for billions of gallons of water draining to the ocean when they could instead be used to alleviate California’s "megadrought," the state’s Department of Water Resources Friday announced it is fast-tracking efforts to capture and store flood waters.

“Projects that capture available precipitation, storm water or flood waters to recharge depleted groundwater basins need to be ready to capture high flows when they are available during each wet season,” Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth said in a statement. 

Groundwater basins work like the state’s piggybank for water during years when there is less rain and snowmelt. Storing water in rock and soil underground, they have the potential to hold up to 1.3 billion acre-feet of water throughout the state. Equaling 362,000 gallons, one acre-foot of water is enough to support the indoor and outdoor watering needs of one to two California households.

“The groundwater system has traditionally been our drought buffer, and we typically rely upon our groundwater in the range of 30% for an average year,” said Tim Godwin, technical and policy advisor for the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Office. “But in drought and times of dry periods, we really rely on this groundwater to provide supply for the state.”

Volleying between extreme rain and extreme drought, California officials expect this so-called weather whiplash to be the norm as the state increasingly experiences the impacts of climate change. The Department of Water Resources and State Water Resources Control Board are collaborating in response to Gov. Newsom’s call for them to work with local agencies to expedite groundwater storage projects.

Last week, the State Water Board approved a six-month permit to enable landowners to divert excess flows from a creek near the city of Merced to help recharge a groundwater basin. The project is expected to divert 10,000 acre-feet of water from the creek during high-flow periods that would otherwise be wasted. Instead, the water will be directed to agricultural fields to help refill groundwater basins that can then be pumped back up to the surface during growing season.

The first project to be approved under a new pilot program, the creek in Merced, is intended to set an example for other parts of California. The State Water Board has applications pending for five similar projects and expects to approve two of them next week.

California has set a goal of increasing groundwater recharge by 500,000 acre-feet with more than 340 proposed recharge projects. Between 2021 and 2022, the Department of Water Resources provided $68 million to fund 42 projects that added 117,000 acre-feet of recharge capacity. This year, it will fund another 52 projects totaling $211 million.