Growing Returns

California’s rural water systems needs leaders. Who will step up next?

Water leaders from 13 communities throughout California's San Joaquin Valley attended the Leadership Institute to build engagement capacity and share lessons about small water system management. (Credit: Kike Arnal)

There I was again, in the car on Highway 99, on my way from San Francisco to Visalia, in the heart of California’s San Joaquin Valley. I had made the trip a dozen times over the past year. But this trip was different. This time I was headed to a reunion.

Back in December 2016, I wrote about a cohort of 30 community water advocates who had just graduated from the Rural Water Boards Leadership Institute – a joint effort sponsored by the Rural Community Assistance Corporation, Self Help Enterprises and Environmental Defense Fund to train residents in the San Joaquin Valley on how to engage on state water policy. Participants spent six months attending workshops and learning about California’s landmark law to end groundwater over pumping and how the law – known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA – might affect their small community water systems. They discussed methods for engaging state policy makers and learned advocacy and communication skills.

Now, almost a year after their graduation, these water leaders were meeting again to catch up, share stories and explore new opportunities to learn from one another. Read More »

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New online hub pairs landowners with conservation investors

Assessing habitat for songbirds at a ranch in the Central Valley.

The drive through the Central Valley’s mosaic of agricultural land, water infrastructure, riparian zones and floodplains has become a familiar one for me and my colleagues. We meet frequently with landowners who are creating, restoring and protecting habitat for wildlife on these working lands.

At each farm and ranch we visit, I am inspired by the landowners who are stepping up to do what they can for the at-risk species that are a part of the Central Valley’s ecology and history.

Whether they are managing flooded fields for Chinook salmon and giant garter snakes, planting trees for Swainson’s hawks and riparian songbirds to nest, or allowing native milkweed and wildflowers to grow for monarch butterflies to breed and feed, these landowners are showcasing conservation innovations that honor and sustain the region’s natural heritage. Read More »

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Sunshine, beaches and…saltwater intrusion? Solving for groundwater decline on California’s coast

Many groundwater basins in California remain significantly overdrawn.

For much of its history, California was the Wild West when it came to groundwater. Thirsty cities and farms could freely pump from underground aquifers with little to no oversight. If you could build a well you could take the water.

Recognizing the negative impacts of unchecked pumping, the state stepped in and, in 2014, passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). SGMA makes local agencies responsible for bringing priority groundwater basins into sustainability – meaning many water managers now need to find new ways to meet their water needs.

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3 steps to close the conservation data gap between farmers and investors

Farmer Scott Henry stands in a soybean field with a tablet computer.

Sustainable agriculture must be economically viable. Photo credit: Leslie Von Pless

In addition to benefiting the environment, on-farm conservation practices tend to create economic value for farmers and surrounding communities. Anecdotal examples of these benefits abound – fertilizer efficiency saves farmers money; no-till lowers labor and fuel expenses; and buffers and wetlands reduce downstream flood risk and drinking water treatment costs.

Quantifying them, however, remains a major challenge. The resulting data gap limits broader adoption of conservation measures.

Farmers care about stewardship, but many conservation practices require large upfront investment or take too long to produce returns. At the same time, investors want to help farmers generate financial and environmental benefits, but a lack of economic data holds them back, according to a study from Encourage Capital [PDF] and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. Read More »

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Teetering on the edge of disaster. What’s next for the Salton Sea?

We’ve seen it coming for years. The Salton Sea, California’s largest lake, has been in a slow and steady decline for decades. And things are likely to get worse at the end of the year.

That is, unless the state steps up and honors its commitment to manage and restore the sea.

A looming deadline

The Salton Sea was created in 1905 when floods breached a levee on the Colorado River, sending a wall of water through Imperial Valley and to the Salton Sink, a natural desert bowl roughly 230 feet below sea level. Water accumulated there and ultimately created the Salton Sea. For decades after that Colorado River water continued to sustain the sea as it passed through Imperial Valley farms as irrigation runoff.

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The wild turkey may be America’s greatest wildlife conservation success story

Three male wild American turkeys displaying full plumage. The turkey’s bald head can change color in seconds with excitement or emotion. The birds’ heads can be red, pink, white or blue. [Photo credit: Larry Smith2010]

When most Americans think about great wildlife success stories, they think about the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon, or possibly the recent news of sea turtle recovery.

What many people forget, or perhaps never knew, is that America’s wild turkey population was once estimated to be approximately 30,000 – a number comparable to today’s estimates for polar bears worldwide.

Thankfully for us (and the gobblers), American wild turkeys now number close to seven million.

So how did the turkey bounce back? The answer lies in what some consider America’s greatest wildlife conservation success story. Read More »

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10,000-acre deal to protect sage-grouse marks milestone in conservation

The imperiled greater sage-grouse avoided an endangered species listing in September 2015 after Western landowners, conservation groups, and state and federal agencies forged a plan to protect its habitat. Read more >>

Today, Kinross Gold U.S.A., Inc., will complete the first purchase of habitat credits to offset impacts to greater sage-grouse through the Nevada Conservation Credit System. The transaction will take place at a signing ceremony in Carson City, Nevada to commemorate the long-term stewardship of nearly 10,000 acres of vital sage-grouse habitat.

Kinross is the first company to participate in the program, buying credits to offset the environmental impacts of its Bald Mountain gold mine in northeast Nevada. The credit projects will include a variety of conservation activities, such as grazing management and fencing maintenance, which will take place over the next 30 years.

The transaction marks a significant milestone in the sage-grouse story, and in America’s conservation history. Read More »

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Sorting through nutrient management marketing claims

Farmer and advisor in a corn field putting precision agriculture technology to use

Farmers need assurance that a nutrient management tool is worth their investment.

Farmers and their advisors face increasing challenges from low crop prices, extreme weather and pressure to improve water quality. A growing marketplace of tools and products promises to help meet these challenges, but has in turn created a new problem: information overload.

This problem is especially acute for precision management of nutrients, one of the fastest growing agricultural sub-sectors. Companies promise their nutrient efficiency tools and products will enable farmers to grow more with less, save money and boost yields. But there is often little available data behind these claims.

As one of the farmers I regularly turn to for advice put it, “We (farmers) need a ‘Big Sort’” – something that sorts through this flood of information, separates the wheat from the chaff and helps farmers make informed decisions about what will work best for them.

To initiate this “Big Sort,” Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) teamed up with a group of experts in technology and nutrient management to develop NutrientStar, which helps farmers determine which products deliver on their promises and are worth the investment. Read More »

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California’s upcoming water bond measure will do more than meets the eye

California Capitol Building, Sacramento

There’s a lot to like about SB 5, the $4 billion parks and water bond legislation signed by Governor Jerry Brown, qualifying it for the June 2018 ballot.

For starters, its largest allocation – $725 million – will go toward building new parks in underserved neighborhoods. That’s a good thing for communities who are often overlooked when it comes to environmental investments and protections.

But that’s not all. SB 5 contains some funding programs unlike those seen in past park bonds. A renewed focus on the agricultural community and the Salton Sea is a clear sign that California is taking a magnifying glass to the most serious resource issues in the state. The bond’s “hidden gems” aim to make California more resilient to the droughts, downpours and wildfires that are expected to intensify as a result of climate change.

That’s a good thing for all Californians, not to mention the state’s wildlife. Read More »

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The next Farm Bill can jump-start agricultural conservation. Here’s how.

An Ohio farmer uses the latest agricultural technology.

Precision agriculture technology can accelerate on-farm conservation, including nutrient management. (Photo: John Rae)

Benjamin Franklin, an experimental farmer and author of Poor Richard’s Almanac, once said that in order to succeed, you must jump as quickly at opportunity as you do at conclusions.

The 2018 Farm Bill is an opportunity for agriculture policy to champion locally led projects, new ideas and entrepreneurship. Such policies can move the needle on conservation outcomes with relatively minimal investment from the federal government. So let’s jump quickly.

In the face of a changing climate, growing population and complex macroeconomic shifts, agricultural resiliency is more important than ever. We need to protect water quality, address climate impacts, establish species habitat and maintain farm profitability. Government alone can’t accomplish these goals. But smart policies can catalyze investments and innovations that do. Read More »

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