Growing Returns

What’s next for California’s Central Valley? Even with water cutbacks, the region can still thrive. Here’s how.

California’s Central Valley has reached a fork in the road.

By January 2020, areas where groundwater demand far outstrips supply must submit plans to bring their groundwater basins back into balance within 20 years. These plans are required by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA, which was signed into law in 2014 during the state’s latest multiyear drought.

SGMA inevitably means less water for irrigating farms. Worst-case estimates forecast as much as 780,000 acres of farmland — out of more than 5 million acres of total irrigated land — will have to be taken out of production. How local decision makers and community members navigate this transition to sustainable groundwater management will significantly shape the future of the region, known as the country’s fruit and nut capital.

On one path, the valley could become a patchwork of dusty barren fields, serving a huge blow to the agriculture sector and rural communities and further impairing already poor air quality. Active farms could become surrounded by fields of invasive weeds and pests, threatening productivity.

On another path, the valley could transform into a pioneering agricultural region that not only puts food on our nation’s plates but also supports thriving wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation, soil health, groundwater recharge and flood control.

EDF is working to help communities achieve this second vision through our Central Valley Resilience Initiative, which features three key strategies: conversion of farmland into wildlife corridors, water trading and community engagement. Of course, all three strategies will require additional funding at the state, regional and local levels. Read More »

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Extreme wet weather in Louisiana and California highlights urgent need for newer, smarter strategies

Coauthored by Ann Hayden and Steve Cochran

It’s not often that communities in California and Louisiana face similar water challenges. California is better known for having too little water and Louisiana too much – both challenges exacerbated by climate change.

But record-setting wet winter weather led both states last week to release significant amounts of water from reservoirs and rivers to prevent flooding, underscoring the need for new approaches to build climate-resilient communities across the country. Read More »

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We need a new financial model to address California’s most pressing environmental problems

This post was co-authored by Ann Hayden of Environmental Defense Fund, Katie Riley of Environmental Incentives, and John Cain of American Rivers

Over the coming decade, the state of California will spend billions of dollars to restore habitat to protect endangered species and mitigate infrastructure improvements. But many existing institutions have been stuck in a project-by-project funding model that limits their ability to leverage private capital, integrate different funding sources or even ensure their desired outcomes are achieved.

Without private capital or partnerships, good conservation projects risk getting stuck in the development and permitting stages for decades, or even stalling out indefinitely. This is particularly true for conservation of large landscapes.

Fortunately, a new approach to conserving habitat is building momentum in California that includes proponents beyond just environmentalists. The private sector is taking on more restoration projects, and state agency staff are showing a greater willingness than ever to leverage private sector partnerships and deliver results more quickly. Read More »

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California water leaders offer recommendations for Governor-elect Gavin Newsom

A friend complaining about her skyrocketing water bill. Parents worried about bathing their children in water known to be carcinogenic. Witnessing young salmon once again flourish on seasonal rice fields.

These are just a few of the water stories that colleagues and I, representing a range of sectors within the Central Valley and coastal region of California, shared in a new report that provides recommendations for incoming Gov. Gavin Newsom to create a healthier and more resilient water future for the state.

We believe that sharing our own first-person narratives is a powerful way to highlight the critical importance of engaging neglected constituencies, fostering creative partnerships and developing innovative funding mechanisms for water management in California. Read More »

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How can communities get the most from investing in nature?

In places like Nevada, ranching has been a way of life for generations, and industries like mining provide key drivers of economic growth and community stability. But these landscapes also hold economic, historical and cultural values tied to the health and stewardship of natural resources.

The same is true for other communities across the country that are striving to address growing needs for infrastructure, economic growth, clean air and safe drinking water.

Balancing community resiliency, economic stability and stewardship of natural resources is no easy task. But a new funding mechanism is gaining traction on the ground in key places, providing proving grounds for how communities can make cost-effective investments in their futures. Read More »

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7 lessons from a California water leader on managing for the future

David Guy is president of the Northern California Water Association (NCWA), an organization committed to ensuring that water supplies are available for the Sacramento Valley — both for today’s users and for future generations.

“The Sacramento Valley is a rich mosaic of farmlands, cities, rural communities, refuges, managed wetlands and meandering rivers,” David said. “Every drought we experience reveals numerous pressures on the water supplies that support this vibrant region. We have to be motivated and forward-thinking to advance the economic, social and environmental sustainability of the Sacramento Valley by enhancing and preserving its water rights, supplies and water quality.”

I recently had the opportunity to speak with David about his role at NCWA, some of the challenges that he and the region face, and how to prepare for the future. Here’s what David had to say. Read More »

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Crops, water and habitat: This California farmer’s winning trifecta

Cannon Michael is the president of Bowles Farming Company.

During times of water scarcity, like California’s recent drought, it’s tempting to take on a binary view of the world.  This was definitely the case with agriculture, which appeared to be at odds with everyone: farms vs. fish, farm vs. cities, farms vs. regulators.  As a dominant water user in the state, they were easy targets.

But when one digs deeper, it’s obvious that many in the agricultural community want to move beyond this debate and do things differently. Yes growing food and fiber takes water, but there are plenty of farmers laser-focused on improving efficiency, maximizing multi-benefit solutions and striking a balance between growing crops and preserving the environment.

I recently visited with Cannon Michael, president of Bowles Farming Company, which oversees an 11,000-acre farm near Los Banos in California’s San Joaquin Valley. He is the great, great, great grandson of Henry Miller, “the Cattle King of California,” so farming is in his blood. He has senior water rights, and while he still had to make difficult management decisions during the drought, he ended up with more water than many of his neighbors and found ways to share it, a tremendous display of collaboration in the farming community. Read More »

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Relationships and incentives: My secret ingredients for better resource management

Author Ann Hayden next to her family farm’s water source

Stewardship of our land and water resources has always played a central role in my life.

I grew up “out in the country,” as we call it, on a-five acre “farm” in Yolo County, California – large enough for raising pigs and sheep, which my older brothers and I would show at the annual 4-H Fair in nearby Woodland.

Living in the Central Valley, we could always count on very hot, dry summers and occasional consecutive dry years, which inevitably were followed by years of heavy rains and even flooding. From a very young age, I understood how important it was to be smart about how we managed our water supply and the surrounding landscape for people, wildlife and the environment.

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California’s new law means more bang for every buck invested in wildlife

The Swainson's hawk was listed as a threatened species in California in 1983 due to loss of habitat and decreased numbers across the state.

The Swainson’s hawk is one of the at-risk species that AB 2087 benefits.

Prudent investors know to keep a few key things in mind. They anticipate the timing of spending priorities, like retirement, and evaluate investment risk accordingly. They might spread resources across funds to meet different objectives. And of course, they look to maximize their return on investment.

Why shouldn’t these same principles apply to investments in our natural resources?

Thanks to a new bill signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown, these principles will now apply to regional conservation investment strategies for wildlife and other resource management activities in California.

AB 2087: A new approach to conservation planning and mitigation

Assembly Bill (AB) 2087 (Levine), will establish voluntary, non-regulatory strategies to help conservationists, local agencies and the state apply core investment principles when planning conservation or mitigation projects.

This legislation comes at a critical time. Expanding development in California has supported a growth in food production, flood protection, transportation and housing, but it has also resulted in various impacts on the environment. The loss and fragmentation of wildlife habitat, in particular, has created a need for the state to restore and maintain at least 600,000 acres for multiple at-risk species in the coming decades. Read More »

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These reforms can unclog California’s water market and help the environment

Birds flying into the sunsetCalifornia has a long tradition of conflict over water. But after five years of drought and an El Niño that failed to live up to its “Godzilla” hype, the conflict has become a crisis. How will the state adjust to a changing climate, increasing demands and prolonged periods of water scarcity?

That’s the question my colleagues and I set out to answer in Better Access. Healthier Environment. Prosperous Communities: Recommendations for Reforming California’s Water Market.

We analyzed the state’s existing market and offered a set of policy reforms to improve the efficiency, accessibility and transparency of the market so that cities, rural communities and ecosystems can benefit without altering existing water rights.

We realize that it will take a portfolio of strategies to increase the state’s resiliency in the face of a growing population and increasingly severe weather. But markets have an especially important role in leveling what has become an uneven playing field. Read More »

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