In the midst of drought, experts aim to improve Central Valley water usage with helicopter-born technology ‘MRI’ technology

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SHAFTER, Calif. (KGET) – When physicians want to take a look at a patient’s vascular system to see things that aren’t visible to the naked eye, they often turn to MRI technology.

That is what experts with the California Department of Water Resources are doing to analyze the state’s water system – specifically the underground aquifers that collect and store precipitation and other surface water. 

This technology is called airborne electromagnetic (AEM) and though it’s been around for almost 20 years, it’s about to be adapted on a widespread basis in California, starting in Kern County. Representatives of a half dozen public and private water management entities were at Minter Field in Shafter for a demonstration of the technology.

The “airborne” in AEM represents helicopter-deployed digital equipment. The 30- by 70-foot AEM loop sends signals into the ground, which then bounce back. The collected data is used to create images that can help state water managers understand aquifer structures and identify where best to make water deposits into the ground so that it stays put. 

Steven Springhorn of the state Department of Water Resources said tough times demand creative new measures.

‘This is an investment on the part of the state, on behalf of all of the groundwater sustainability agencies and the public, really, to get more information about our groundwater basins,” he said. “Because, especially in times like we are, now a drought, it makes up close to 60 percent of our state’s water supply.”

In a state where so many factors are working against the Central Valley, particularly its farmers – drought, climate change, water infrastructure limitations, ground subsidence, new residential development — every tool helps.

Max Halkjaer of the Danish water contractor Ramboll says the technology is tried and true.

“We have used it in Demark for many years,” Halkjaer said. “This system was developed and took off the first time in 2002, and it was commercially available since 2004. It has been used across the entire [nation of] Denmark.”

Why did the state water agency launch this underground survey here in Kern County? Because at the southern tip of the Central Valley it’s a logical place to begin development of what will be a standardized, statewide dataset that improves the understanding of aquifer structures.

Local water managers have to figure out how to best implement the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which will force agriculture to make some tough decisions about water usage. The hope is that the AEM water-copter informs those decisions in a positive way.

So, if you should see one of these contraptions in the sky, know that it’s part of an effort to maximize one of California’s most valuable commodities – water.

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