Growing Returns

Selected tag(s): drought

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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Meet the farmer who helped make no-till the norm in north central Montana

mattson-logoApproximately 56 percent of all corn, soy, wheat, and cotton farms use strip-tillage or no-till on at least a portion of their land. No-till, as defined by experts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, means “limiting soil disturbance to manage the amount and distribution of crop and plant residue on the soil surface year round.” Strip tillage, meaning soil disturbance occurs on 30 percent or less of the field, also qualifies as no-till.

No-till is a widely recognized conservation practice that can help growers maximize soil health. The practice works best when implemented year after year and combined with other conservation measures like fertilizer efficiency and cover crops (wherever geography permits). There are myriad benefits for farmers and the planet, but barriers still exist.

That’s why I’m so amazed by a no-till adoption rate of 90 percent in north central Montana.

I talked with Carl Mattson, Montana grain grower and an agricultural policy and conservation consultant, about why he made the switch to no-till, why he was an early adopter of the practice, why so many farmers in his region use no-till, and what he sees as other obstacles to the future of sustainable farming. Read More »

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How “fertigation” is helping this citrus grower beat the drought

WP_20150922_010A common misperception is that citrus season is in the summer, but peak citrus season is actually happening right now.

California grew over 90 percent of U.S. lemons last season, but the severe drought in 2015 caused a 9 percent dip in domestic lemon production compared to the previous growing season. This meant higher costs for farmers, consumers – and the planet.

In honor of peak citrus season, I asked Bakersfield citrus grower John S. Gless how he’s getting more crop per drop of fertilizer and water through “fertigation,” why efficiency and sustainability practices are good investments, and why land stewardship is a core part of farming. 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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Why almond lovers can breathe easy again

It’s been a tough year for the almond. Vilified and beaten down, the nut has come to symbolize the California drought. While the reasons for and solutions to the drought are complicated and nuanced, the almond’s reputation has nonetheless suffered.

Meanwhile, farmers across the board are under increasing pressure – from regulatory requirements and increasing consumer demand for transparency – to modify their fertilizer application practices and thereby reduce nitrogen losses to the air and water.

Fortunately, there’s good reason for the almond to cheer up – a new Specialty Crop Block Grant (SCBG) from the California Department of Food & Agriculture will support the state’s almond growers in their ongoing efforts to make nut production more sustainable, without sacrificing yields. Read More »

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Why one Kansas farmer is leading a soil health revolution

Grower Gail Fuller

Kansas farmer Gail Fuller

Soil health wasn’t always this sexy. The United Nations has named 2015 the International Year of the Soils, the National Corn Growers Association created the Soil Health Partnership, and the Telegraph newspaper is claiming that we can only ignore the soil crisis for so long, and that “just a handspan of topsoil lies between us and oblivion.”

But Kansas farmer Gail Fuller has been at the forefront of soil health measures since the early 1980s. Just last month, he hosted the fourth annual “Fuller Field School,” a soil health workshop that was attended by growers from across the globe.

I asked Gail, who operates a diversified 1,000 acre farm in Emporia, Kansas, to tell me why soil health is so important for our food system, and why other growers should get on board. Read More »

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Walnut grower Craig McNamara on water banking, hedgerows, and the birds and the bees

Craig McNamara on his farm in Winters, California.

Craig McNamara on his farm in Winters, California.

Craig McNamara embodies agricultural leadership in California. He has farmed a 450-acre organic walnut orchard in Winters, California for the past 35 years. He’s been an innovator in implementing conservation practices on his land that both enhance wildlife and benefit his farming operation. He’s also the president of the California State Board of Food and Agriculture, and an influential sustainable agriculture educator.

I’ve known Craig for about 10 years and have had the honor of serving with him on the State Board for the last two. I spoke with him about how he integrates farming with ecology and his plan for dealing with potential El Niño rains. Read More »

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Why a “Godzilla” El Niño won’t end California’s drought

rain on farm

The original version of this post appeared on EDF’s Voices blog.

An El Niño advisory is now official, and scientists suggest there is a greater than a 90-percent chance that it will arrive this winter.

They also believe the developing El Niño could become one of the most powerful on record – rivaling its 1997-98 predecessor, which sent California twice as much rain and the Sierra Nevada double the snowpack it usually gets.

So news of another El Niño may sound like a blessing for California farmers, who help make the state the world’s eighth-largest economy, as they suffer through the worst drought in more than a millennium. Read More »

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