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TURLOCK, Calif. (KTXL) — As the California drought continues, water officials are using flight technology to monitor groundwater information in basins across the state, including those in the Central Valley.

The California Department of Water Resources is conducting helicopter flyovers to track the state’s groundwater from the air.

Low-flying helicopters use equipment to send signals to the ground that bounce back up, kind of like taking an MRI of the Earth’s surface. 

“We are experiencing a change in our climate. We are having now to think about drought preparedness year after year,” DWR engineering geologist Dr. Katharine Dlubac explained. “Our goal is really to be collecting this data which helps us better understand what these aquifer systems look like.”

Dlubac manages these airborne electromagnetic surveys, also known as AEM surveys.

“We’re in year three of a drought, and it’s very likely that with climate change, that the impacts of drought are going to continue,” Dlubac said. “And so, in drought years when we rely more on groundwater than surface water, it’s important to understand what that groundwater resource looks like, how water gets in, how water flows, how much is there, in order to use the groundwater sustainably in those drought years.”

Herb Smart is a regulation analyst with the Turlock Irrigation District which is one of 12 organizations that make up the West Turlock Groundwater Sustainability Agency.

Smart said the information collected will improve the agency’s 20-year sustainability plan that was recently submitted to DWR.

“For the most part, a huge majority of Californians get their water specifically or only from groundwater and so that’s why it’s so important, especially in drought,” Smart explained. “A lot of times the snowpack is called California’s largest reservoir. Well, groundwater tends to be another huge storage component for people.”

Smart said the information collected from the AEM surveys will help improve sustainability plans for local water management agencies to better control water resources. 

“That data is going to improve the model, but more importantly too, it’s going to help us find areas where we could recharge groundwater in the future,” Smart said.

DWR said that over the next three months they will survey the Central Valley up through Sacramento and Redding before moving and finishing up the surveys in other parts of the state in the fall, with results of the survey expected by the end of the year and early 2023.