Growing Returns

One area in California will tap regional planning to respond to the state’s groundwater law. Here’s how it could help farmers.

Now that critically overdrafted groundwater basins in the Central Valley have submitted their sustainability plans, the hard work begins for them to balance groundwater supply and demand in ways that minimize economic disruption.

A state program called Regional Conservation Investment Strategies (RCIS) can help.

RCIS wasn’t created to help groundwater basins comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). Rather, it was established in 2016 as a framework for regions to prioritize and develop measurable habitat conservation outcomes including those needed to  adapt to climate change.

This week, however, the Kaweah Subbasin was awarded $515,000 from the state’s Wildlife Conservation Board to develop an RCIS plan, becoming the first region in the Central Valley to leverage the process in response to SGMA. We at EDF think it could serve as a model for other communities for two reasons: Read More »

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Newsom’s Water Resilience Portfolio puts California on course to climate resilience

It is encouraging that one of California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s first actions in 2020 was the Jan. 3 release of the much-anticipated Water Resilience Portfolio.

While Newsom has been forced to address climate change on many fronts during the past year – think wildfires, blackouts and automobile standards – the state’s myriad water challenges must remain a priority. Our state’s water system is decades old and needs to be re-envisioned for a new era. Read More »

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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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