Author Archives: Ann Hayden

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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Note to Congress: Pitting fish against farms won’t solve California’s drought

Drought(Updated July 16, 2015)

A bill to supposedly address California’s devastating drought, authored by Rep. David Valadao, cleared the House of Representatives today.

Unfortunately, this proposal – dubiously named the Western Water and American Food Security Act of 2015 – is yet another attempt to move more water through California’s vast Central Valley Project at a time when we can least afford it and at the expense of many water users.

Among other problems, the bill would permanently undermine science-based protections and regulatory assurances for at-risk species and ecosystems that are essential in providing reliable food, safe drinking water, and jobs to millions of Americans.

The proposed tradeoffs here are nothing new. Similar bills – H.R. 3964 and 5781 in 2014, both opposed by the White House and the State of California – also pitted fish against farms.

It’s time we move away from finger pointing and start finding collaborative solutions to the drought that increase the resiliency of our freshwater ecosystems while supporting agricultural communities in California’s Central Valley. Read More »

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California’s drought is real, but it’s dusted up a lot of hot air

shutterstock_191075504

Credit: Shutterstock

Finger-pointing tends to sharpen during times of crisis.

Exhibit A: California, now entering its fourth year of drought.

If you’ve followed media coverage of the drought lately – which has spiraled to new heights since Gov. Jerry Brown ordered the state’s first mandatory cuts in urban water use last week – you’ve probably heard that agriculture was “spared” the knife.

An interview with Gov. Brown on PBS Newshour perfectly encapsulates the debate of the past week:

“Well, Governor, encouraging people to decrease watering their lawns seems like literally a drop in the bucket, when 80 percent of the water … is from the agriculture sector,” the reporter starts out. “We know that it costs an enormous amount of water to have a single almond to eat … Is it time for us to start zeroing in on the largest customers or users of water?”

While it’s true that agriculture is California’s biggest water user, and that some crops require more water than others, it’s unfair and inaccurate to suggest, first, that agriculture was passed over, and second, that a small nut is primarily to blame for sucking the state dry. It’s more complicated than that. Read More »

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Collaborative conservation: A ripe example from America's farms

Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has been working with farmers and ranchers for more than a decade to transform business as usual by providing incentives for conservation. As EDF’s 2014 strategic plan notes, “we’ve seen some encouraging things.”

conservation

EDF staff join farmers and other conservation collaborators in the field to track outcomes for habitats and species.

With proven success in the field, we are now looking to take these programs to scale to boost food production while maintaining profitable farms, a safe environment and healthy people. Read More »

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Full Belly Farm: The model for innovation during drought

Full Belly Farm owners in the pepper field

Credit: Paulo Vescia

It’s not always easy to incentivize private landowners to voluntarily implement water efficiency and conservation measures, particularly when there’s a drought. When drought hits, farmers desperately need water to grow thirsty crops and remain profitable. In the near term, it’s a lot easier, as “60 Minutes” recently reported, to keep drilling deeper and deeper to access quickly dwindling groundwater – at any cost.

As the "60 Minutes" story notes, groundwater is like a savings account that should primarily be used in times of need to supplement surface water supplies. With the most severe drought ever on record and surface water supplies at an all-time low, farmers all across California are pumping groundwater in record amounts – putting the state in serious risk of widespread groundwater overdraft.

That’s why the case of Full Belly Farm, a 400-acre, 30-year old certified organic farm located in Northern California – and recent winner of the prestigious Leopold Conservation Award – is especially impressive.

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California’s new water law a win for agriculture and the environment

Copyright: EDF/Mathew Grimm

Copyright: EDF/Mathew Grimm

Now that voter passage of a $7.5-billion water bond is firmly set in California’s rear-view mirror, it’s time to look forward and map out the road before us. How will the money be spent, and where will it drive change?

Beneficiaries of the new law will be vast, to be sure, but a good chunk of change is slated to support farm communities while restoring habitat and freeing water up for the environment. Here’s how:

$900 million for groundwater sustainability

This funding has the potential to improve the quality and reliability of groundwater resources that many agricultural communities across the state depend on. It is designed to ensure that projects are prioritized based on several criteria, including how the project will prevent the spread of groundwater contamination into storage areas, how the project will impact local water supply reliability, and whether the project can recharge vulnerable and high-use groundwater basins.

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“Growing” habitat can help agriculture and wildlife weather the drought

IMG_6613dsThe California drought is putting the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers at serious risk.  Without a reliable water supply, many fields are going fallow. This not only threatens the state’s world-leading agricultural economy, it significantly impacts wildlife species that depend on agricultural lands for survival.

A pioneering program under development in California’s Central Valley, however, may offer farmers and wildlife some relief. It’s called the Central Valley Habitat Exchange, and while it wasn’t conceived for the express purpose of helping growers in times of drought, it can reward producers who provide habitat by growing less water-intensive crops. Here’s how.

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