Growing Returns

Selected tag(s): central valley

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.

Read More »

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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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How can we better target public funds for wildlife conservation? Look to Elliott Ranch

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 was listed as a threatened species in California in 1983 due to loss of habitat and decreased numbers across the state.

This week, the Delta Conservancy, a California state agency, awarded Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) a grant of $380,000 to implement a habitat enhancement project for the state-listed Swainson’s hawk on Elliott Ranch in West Sacramento, near the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The grant is part of California’s public water bond funding being managed by the Delta Conservancy to restore wildlife habitat in the Central Valley.

The Elliott Ranch project will enhance Swainson’s hawk habitat on 300 acres. Specifically, the project will expand the hawks’ hunting grounds by restoring habitat for their prey and converting existing crops to bird-friendly pasture.

Central to the project will be the use of a habitat quantification tool (HQT) designed by EDF and local stakeholders to evaluate the current quality of habitat for Swainson’s hawk and compare restoration alternatives to optimize habitat outcomes. This will be the first time the HQT will be used as a mechanism to help allocate public funding to the most high value habitat improvements in California.

Improved accounting, improved outcomes Read More »

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Despite drought, California agriculture is doing well. But there are hidden costs.

Water scarcity has affected California vineyards

Photo credit: Henrik Johansson

According to a new World Bank report, regions around the world could gain or lose up to 6 percent of their GDP by 2050 depending on how they manage for climate-driven water scarcity.

I was curious about how the report’s findings might apply to California, where I live.

Here in the Golden State, water scarcity is a familiar threat. And while the World Bank found that climate-water costs to North American GDP should be minimal, many Californians have suffered acutely from sustained drought.

In some cases, however, it isn’t entirely clear what the impacts of water scarcity have been. 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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From Mexico City to San Francisco: A multi-national perspective on water management

Ana Lucia Garcia Briones (left) joined colleagues for a visit to the Kern Water Bank, which uses California’s groundwater space to store 1.5 million acre feet of water and retrieve it when account holders need it.

Ana Lucia Garcia Briones (left) joined colleagues for a visit to the Kern Water Bank in Bakersfield, California, which uses California’s groundwater space to store 1.5 million acre feet of water and retrieve it when account holders need it.

On World Water Day, I am reminded of what brought me to the Environmental Defense Fund: a passion for working on market-based incentive programs to improve groundwater management in California, ultimately benefiting multiple, diverse communities.

Born and raised in Mexico City, I moved to San Francisco to work on drought-related problems in California. It has been a surreal experience, allowing me to help disproportionately impacted communities, many of which are poor Latino communities in the rural Central Valley, where most of the nation’s fruits and vegetables are grown. In this way, I feel a little bit closer to home.

Water security for all

Many people may not realize it, but only about 5 percent of usable water in California is visible; the rest is underground. With access to surface water curtailed because of a five-year drought, many of the state’s biggest water users – farms and cities – have relied on groundwater pumping as a last resort. This has drawn down aquifers to dangerously low levels, and has left some rural communities without any water at all.  Read More »

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How California farmers can help salmon survive, and what’s in it for them

California's Chinook salmon are large fish that can grow up to 58 inches in length and weigh up to 129 pounds. But most salmon do not grow this large, especially in drought conditions where they lack sufficient habitat. (Credit: seafoodwatch.org)

California’s Chinook salmon are large fish that can grow up to 58 inches in length and weigh up to 129 pounds. But most salmon do not grow this large, especially in drought conditions, lacking sufficient habitat. (Credit: seafoodwatch.org)

Already an endangered species, California salmon populations have reached record lows.

Fisheries officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that just 3 percent of this generation of winter-run Chinook salmon survived in the Sacramento River. This is a record low survival rate – more than 10 times worse than the survival rate before the California drought.

How does drought affect salmon?

Salmon at any stage need cold water to survive, and severe drought conditions have put a chokehold on the state’s water supply, which relies on snow melt from the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Without this snow melt, there is less cold water flowing into California’s waterways, creating higher than normal water temperatures in the Sacramento River.

But it’s not just the lack of cold water that’s affecting salmon populations. They also lack sufficient habitat to grow and thrive. Even if the drought ended today, they would still be in peril without adequate habitat. Read More »

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How 2015 set the table for major agricultural and environmental success in 2016

agricultureIn 2015, U.S. agriculture proved to be a willing and powerful partner in the path to sustainability. We’ve seen farmers, ranchers and food companies make major headway in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving soil health, restoring habitat for at-risk wildlife and protecting freshwater supplies.

Here are some of this year’s highlights:

  • Approval of the first carbon offset protocol for crops in a cap-and-trade market (for U.S. rice growers), followed by approval of a grasslands protocol and a huge investment from USDA to develop a fertilizer protocol. These protocols reward farmers for conservation measures that reduce emissions and offer businesses new opportunities to offset the environmental impacts from their operations.
  • Launch of the innovative SUSTAIN platform throughout the United Suppliers agricultural retailer network. SUSTAIN, developed in coordination with EDF, trains ag retailers in best practices for sustainable farming and aims to enroll 10 million acres in the program by 2020. So far, over 300 sales representatives in Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Ohio have attended training. And food companies interested in making SUSTAIN a feature of their sustainable sourcing work include Campbell’s, Unilever, Kellogg’s, General Mills, and Smithfield.
  • A “not warranted” listing decision for sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act, due in large part to ranchers’ commitments to develop and implement conservation solutions for the bird. Habitat exchanges – a solution developed by EDF and partners in agriculture and industry – are now available in Colorado, Nevada and Wyoming for landowners to earn new revenue for protecting and enhancing greater sage-grouse habitat.
  • Release of Colorado’s first-ever water plan to ensure the health and vitality of the state’s streams, rivers, communities and wildlife – without harming farmers. The plan addresses development of financial mechanisms to incentivize participation in alternative water transfer mechanisms and subsidize agricultural water system optimization. This innovative water planning can now be a model for other water-stressed communities.

So what lies ahead for 2016? We asked our experts to share their thoughts and wishes for the New Year. 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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