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Light green field of crops on cloudy day.

It’s been more than five years since Hurricane Sandy and more than 10 years since Hurricane Katrina. The communities affected by these storms haven’t just recovered; they’ve strengthened their levees, drainage systems and water infrastructure so they’re better equipped for the next disaster.

These resilience efforts protect a city from modern weather events, but there’s more to resilience than just defense. And a group of farmers in the west recently learned how to use these environmental tragedies as a catalyst for growth — literally.

The Oroville Dam Crisis

Last February, the Oroville Dam narrowly avoided what would’ve been one of the worst floods in California’s history. A quickly thawing winter spilled into the Fresno County reservoir at an alarming rate, and the National Guard sent in two-dozen soldiers with a series of high-water vehicles to help deliver supplies to stranded residents. Nearly 200 thousand citizens were forced to evacuate.

Aerial view of the Oroville Dam flooding.

Image source: California National Guard

But while dam managers worked to drain what they could, crop growers at Terranova Ranch did something else.

Using a series of levees and irrigation gates, this agricultural team designed a water transit system that fed this seasonal runoff into a drying aquifer beneath the soil. Terranova's peppers, carrots, grapes, alfalfa and other produce depend on this aquifer — by using floodwater to recharge it, the ranch helped mitigate a disaster while making this local business more resourceful at the same time.

The Future of Floodwater

Three thousand miles east: Rockland County, N.Y. suffers a similar problem every summer, when the Ramapo River’s water flow fluctuates too much to accommodate the whole region. In response, an innovative wastewater plant was designed to use excess effluent from other areas to recharge the river’s sole-source aquifer, ensuring a million other residents receive their share of drinking water.

This isn’t the first time a city or county has used groundwater to address a civil issue, but together, these solutions showcase the role water infrastructure plays to the public. By working with aquifers, farmers, irrigators and other water-dependent operations, water utilities can collaborate with the businesses they're designed to support in the worst of times. Suddenly the weather is seen as a tool for development, rather than an interruption to protect against.

What's Ahead

People flourish when they turn an environmental problem into its own solution. The Oroville Dam is just one example — there are many ways to use the conditions outside as an environmental opportunity: Milwaukee, for instance, has been able to collect rainwater for use as forecasting data, making the city more intuitive to inclement weather before it happens. One might even consider how wind turbines will use increasingly intense currents to produce power in unlikely places.

Not all bad weather is bad news. Terranova and the rest of Fresno County is a good example of how to use the resources given to us during a natural disaster for the good of the community. Learn more about how one becomes truly resilient below.

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