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.

From farmland to vibrant habitat

Our California water team is helping landowners in the Central Valley identify and transform areas with the greatest potential to conserve and replenish groundwater while delivering additional benefits. These benefits include more resilient flood management and increasing wildlife habitat for migratory waterfowl and other species such as the San Joaquin kit fox. We are developing several pilot projects to prove this approach, using a decision-support tool developed with UC Santa Barbara and drawing on our years of experience collaborating with farmers through our Central Valley Habitat Exchange.

EDF is developing pilot projects with Central Valley farmers to convert farmland into wildlife habitat for such species as the San Joaquin kit fox pictured above. 

Water sharing

Transparent, well-designed water trading programs are a powerful tool to encourage and reward sustainable groundwater management. EDF is developing a pilot with the Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District, a 44,000-acre area west of Bakersfield where groundwater demand exceeds supply by 9,000 acre-feet per year. (One acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, or enough water to cover a football field one foot deep. An average California family uses one-half to one acre-foot of water per year.)

The goal of the pilot with Rosedale-Rio Bravo is to support effective accounting and management of available supplies, foster the movement of water to the highest value and best uses, protect sensitive ecosystems and rural community drinking water supply, and ultimately help the district rebalance groundwater while minimizing the economic costs to the community. What’s next for California’s Central Valley? Even with water cutbacks, the region can still thrive. Here’s how. Click To Tweet

Healthy water trading that protects ecosystems and disadvantaged communities is part of a portfolio of water management strategies that will be needed to comply with SGMA. The Public Policy Institute of California estimates a portfolio approach that includes water trading to comply with SGMA would decrease the need for land fallowing by more than a quarter (from 750,000 acres to 535,000 acres); reduce annual revenue losses from crops and related activities by more than a third (from $2.1 billion to $1.3 billion); and reduce job losses from 21,000 to 13,000.

Community engagement

It is imperative that rural communities understand SGMA and are fully engaged in co-creating a new vision for the valley that they call home. Working with local environmental justice partners, my colleague Ana Lucia García Briones has developed and led a bilingual Leadership Academy to educate and empower small rural water board members to advocate effectively for their own water needs. Another colleague, Christina Babbitt, has developed an interactive groundwater game to inform communities about the strategies for balancing groundwater supply and demand.

EDF is in the preliminary stages of exploring new opportunities for farm workers, including job training to transition to work restoring and managing habitat and new outdoor spaces such as trails and parks.

Complying with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act will be not be easy; it will require difficult tradeoffs in the Central Valley, a region where it has often been easier to fight than to fix problems. However, SGMA also represents a major opportunity to create a new model for building resilience to the increasing uncertainty and variability of water supplies threatened by climate change. If the Central Valley can succeed at creating a more resilient future for its people, wildlife, and economy, then there is no limit to where this can be achieved.

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  1. DanH
    Posted July 1, 2019 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    This piece is so far from reality that it shows what is wrong with the internet. People can post anything, true or not and those that want to believe will hang onto it. The PPIC’s estimate of fallowing is too low. They are economists not water experts and have been publishing weak studies for the past 3 years. Water trading will do nothing to reduce land fallowing. There just is not enough water to go around. The actual number of fallowed acres will be over 1 million, most in the San Joaquin Valley from Stockton to Bakersfield. The economic impacts to many disadvantaged communities will be enormous. The land values in many areas will drop and foreclosures will skyrocket. the RRBWSD program is a way for farmers that want to retire to trade their water to others that want to keep farming. There is not enough water for everyone. At the end of the day the same acres of land go fallow, with or without water markets. What we need is for fluff pieces like these to go away so we can start planning to deal with reality.

  2. Posted July 1, 2019 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    Good start but you didn’t mention the reason all these hoops must be jumped through; poor water management on the part of the state and feds. The enviro regs prevented growers from receiving their contracted (and paid for) surface water supplies forcing them to pump.

  3. Katrina Danford
    Posted July 1, 2019 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    You’re the problem not the solution. Stop injecting yourselves into agriculture and let the farmers do what they have been doing successfully for over a century.

    • Colt's Mom
      Posted July 10, 2019 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

      Exactly. I notice that conveniently, there is nothing said about current food supplies and the effect they will have in our nation and beyond when all this land becomes fallowed. You do enjoy eating, am I correct to assume that?
      Wildlife conservation, land, that’s insanity. Privately owned farmland is not yours to do what YOU please with it, folks. I suppose you would also be against these landowners making some money off using this conservation area for hunting purposes, despite the fact that hunting is a scientifically proven conservation and wildlife management strategy.
      I think the vegan lifestyle is effecting your ability to think clearly.

  4. Cannon Michael
    Posted July 2, 2019 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    SGMA presents a new reality for the Central Valley and facing the challenges it presents will take engagement from multiple stakeholders. We are fortunate to have partners like EDF who are willing to engage on issues and work on solutions – too many groups are only looking out for their singular interests. It takes courage to reach out and work with others but collaborative solutions are the most durable. Agriculture is an incredibly important industry that I am proud to be a part of, but we often don’t forge the important partnerships that can help us with lasting solutions. SGMA isn’t going away and there are potentially more than a million acres of land that could go out of production. Anyone who believes that the agricultural industry by itself can come up with a solution to minimize impacts from SGMA doesn’t understand California politics. Multi-benefit solutions are the only answer to the reality that SGMA and unreliable surface water deliveries present. We need to take a collaborative approach if we are going to minimize impacts and create better outcomes. I appreciate EDF being willing to take a leadership role and extend a hand of partnership.

  5. Michael Frantz
    Posted July 4, 2019 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    California water policies at large are at a critical juncture. We can continue the failed policies of the past, where both ecosystems and farms suffer, or we can embrace a collaborative approach where we work together to shape a better future. Policies informed and developed by sound science, with diverse stakeholders listening to and attempting to help each other offer the potential to bring real success where fighting has failed us all. This will take courage, and trust must be built between historical adversaries.

    What I like about this article is the opportunity for local communities and family farmers to have significant influence in the process. EDF is attempting to empower local stakeholders, just like SGMA intended, so that those closest to the water have a say in their future. EDF & PPIC are correct: a streamlined system to trade water from where it is plentiful to where it is needed most is desperately needed in the SJ Valley. This will reduce SGMA impacts. So will capturing flood flows on years like 2019 and using them to recharge our aquifers. This year all delta exporters should have received 100% allocations in order to put the plentiful water year to best use.

    SGMA is going to be very painful for the Ag community. It is clear that in some areas there will be pumping restrictions. I appreciate EDF’s thoughtful approach, and thank them for working with the agricultural community, and not against us. Let’s work together to develop SGMA, and do so in a way that improves our communities,the environment, and our farms.

  6. Brian Kernohan
    Posted July 8, 2019 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    Achieving sustainable use of California’s groundwater resources will impact virtually all of the farmland in the Southern San Joaquin Valley. The amount of acreage ultimately converted to non-ag use is a function of future water supply development and effective land use planning. With the proper planning and tools, the valley can remain a vibrant economy with a strong ag sector. Piecemealing solutions without proper planning will undoubtedly fall short and create additional burdens as lands are fallowed. EDF’s presence in this space is welcome as we examine those tools and alternative uses of land and explore multi-benefit solutions that strategically develop habitat, groundwater recharge, and other uses.