Growing Returns

Selected tag(s): central valley

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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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 hidden opportunity for water storage in California

Aerial photo released by the California Department of Water Resources, showing the damaged spillway with eroded hillside in Oroville

California’s historic winter ended the drought in many parts of the state and piled up record levels of snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. With so much precipitation, surface water infrastructure – our network of dams, reservoirs and levees – has been called into action like never before, and in some cases has struggled to handle the influx of flows.

With spring temperatures on the rise, snowmelt and runoff have accelerated, adding another wave of stress to the system. And with snowpack still at 192% of average, there is even more runoff on the way.

So where will all this water go?

With many reservoirs near capacity already, water managers have had to allow spring snowmelt to flow out through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and into the ocean. This is inevitable given the sheer amount of water in the system this year, and in fact, these occasional high flows provide multiple benefits to ecosystems and coastal communities.

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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We need to get creative to protect wildlife in the face of climate risk

The Swainson's hawk will need to be protected from the effects of climate change

A pilot project for Swainson’s hawk is creating high-quality nesting habitat on a 4,000-acre farm in San Joaquin County.

Landowners and environmentalists both grapple with the same question: In the midst of uncertainty, what is the most effective way to reconcile short-term and long-term needs for wildlife habitat?

For example, it can be risky to invest in permanent conservation on a property vulnerable to climate change, but failing to protect existing habitat in the face of uncertainty is an existential threat to species like the Swainson’s hawk.

Fortunately, new habitat accounting tools are emerging that bring more certainty to conservation planning, which helps landowners make effective management decisions for their property, helps biologists design effective restoration plans and ultimately helps wildlife thrive. Read More »

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Farmers and environmentalists want the same thing

Farmers and environmentalists want the same thing

I’m spending time on this year’s National Ag Day thinking back gratefully to a recent meeting I had with farmers.

I was attending the annual farm exchange program offered through the California Agricultural Leadership Foundation, which facilitates learning opportunities on California farms. This year’s program brought together state environmental policy professionals and growers from the Central Coast, an epicenter for growing the nation’s specialty crops, such as lettuce, broccoli, and strawberries. My aim was “to see sustainability through the eyes of farmers.” We toured various agricultural operations, had thoughtful discussions, and stayed with host families in the local farm community.

My host was Erin Amaral, who manages 1,170 acres of vineyards near San Luis Obispo. Erin and I got along immediately – and our conversations kept coming back to one central tenet: farmers and environmentalists want the same things. Read More »

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Water heroes emerge in California’s Central Valley

Water board leaders from 13 communities throughout California's Central Valley attended the Leadership Academy to build engagement capacity and share lessons about small water system management.

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

California’s Central Valley, which stretches 450 miles from Redding in the north to Bakersfield in the south, is the nation’s richest agricultural region, producing 40 percent of our fruit, vegetables and nuts on nearly 9 million acres of irrigated farmland. The Valley is also ground zero for California’s water problems.

As California endures its fifth year of drought, cities, farms, and communities across the state are experiencing severe water stress. Rivers, lakes and reservoirs are drying up, so residents are turning to groundwater pumping to quench their thirst. As a result, many of the state’s groundwater aquifers are being depleted, causing wells to run dry or become contaminated.

The most critically overdrawn aquifers are in and around small, rural communities in the Central Valley. Here, thousands of people—many of them low-income farm workers—live without safe drinking water.

Read More »

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From Tennessee to the arid West, water runs through my work

Banks of the Shasta River, Siskiyou County, California (Mount Shasta in the background)

Banks of the Shasta River, Siskiyou County, California (Mount Shasta in the background)

Eastern Tennessee, at the edge of Appalachia, is a beautiful part of the country. Abundant rainfall and a humid climate have created a lush, green landscape filled with thriving streams and rivers. As an adolescent living in this environment, fishing was one of my family’s favorite pastimes. I have such great memories of floating these rivers and catching smallmouth bass and walleye.

But not all streams were great for fishing in Eastern Tennessee. Runoff and sedimentation from widespread coal mining and manufacturing would turn some rivers red. The sight of rivers nearly devoid of life disturbed me and marked the beginning of my slow evolution toward a career in water management.

My career has been a journey, exploring and addressing the nuances that define water, particularly in the western United States. The lure of water led me to Colorado State University, where I received a doctorate degree in watershed sciences. There I immersed myself in water issues, with a big focus on agricultural water use. I made my way back east to teach geology at Radford University before moving to California to begin work as a watershed engineer and consultant.

Today, as an associate vice president at Environmental Defense Fund, I am focused on developing collaborative solutions for managing water scarcity throughout the West. Read More »

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The snake at the crux of California's wildlife challenge, and the policy that can solve it

Giant garter snake

Giant garter snake (license)

Enter the giant garter snake. The giant garter snake is an aquatic species native to California and a federally-listed “threatened” species that largely persists today – along with many other critters – in the vast acreage of Central Valley rice fields and water distribution canals.

In the past, seasonal floods would transform California’s Central Valley into a great inland sea of floodplain habitats teeming with fish and wildlife, including the giant garter snake.

Over time, development of the flood and irrigation systems that enabled the Central Valley’s $17 billion agricultural economy has led to the destruction of 95 percent of the region’s historic wetlands, putting countless California wildlife at risk of extinction.

For example, ongoing flood system operations and maintenance activities—required to protect farms and communities in the floodplain—continue to disrupt giant garter snake habitat. What’s more, when drought or fallowing reduces water deliveries to rice growers, the snake’s remaining habitat can dry up.

We need a better way to protect and restore habitat for wildlife like the giant garter snake, before it's too late.

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Birds, snakes and butterflies: Farming for more than crops and cash

Davis Ranch manager John Brennan pointed out a hundred year-old valley oak. Resting in the highest branches was a large nest about two feet wide, where a pair of hawks were nesting. As we dispersed about the ranch, one of the hawks greeted us by spreading its wings and soaring off into the blue sky.

A pair of Swainson's hawk nest in a 100-year-old valley oak tree at Davis Ranch in Colusa, California. (Credit: Emily James)

The Golden State is well known for its robust and diverse agricultural output, even during times of drought. In 2014, California’s farms, ranches and nurseries turned out $54 billion worth of everything from oranges to rice, and milk to nuts.

Our farms and ranches are less renowned for the rich wildlife habitat they also provide, in some cases for threatened species like the Swainson’s hawk and giant garter snake, which have long struggled with the disappearance of their historic habitat in open grasslands and tule marshes.

The Swainson’s hawk population in California used to be close to 17,000 mating pairs. Today, that number is closer to 2,000. And the giant garter snake has faced the loss of 95 percent of its historic Central Valley wetland habitat. In both cases, landscape conversion and fragmentation, in addition to land management practices such as rodent control, have steadily worn away the suitable habitat for these species.

Fortunately, many species are adapting to these landscape changes and, with wildlife-friendly practices, are able to thrive on productive California farms and ranches. Farms like Davis Ranch. Read More »

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