Growing Returns

Selected tag(s): central valley

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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How water managers can address surface water depletions – California’s “sixth deadly sin”

The Cosumnes River is one of the last undammed rivers west of the Sierra Nevada. While not a large river, it flows year-round out of the Sierras, east of Elk Grove, south of Sacramento, and across the floor of the Central Valley before adding its modest flow to the Mokelumne River.

Every year, however, around the Fourth of July, the lower part of the Cosumnes River goes dry, even while the flow from the Sierras continues. The lower river stays dry until the first big rains come, sometimes as late as December or January, and resumes its high flow throughout the winter months.

When the Cosumnes River flows onto the valley floor, it leaks surface water into groundwater because the groundwater levels are low. In the summer, the river goes completely dry because the flows are especially low compared to the high leakage rates.

How can a river be flowing and then disappear downstream? The explanation lies in the inevitable interaction between groundwater and surface water, which have been managed separately – until now.

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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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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.

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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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