Dusty barren fields or thriving farmland and habitat? This bill creates a better vision for California’s future

Update: Gov. Gavin Newsom approved a budget in September 2021 that dedicates $50 million for a new land repurposing program to help farmers reduce groundwater use while simultaneously creating new benefits for people and wildlife.

As California legislators returned to Sacramento this week rightfully focused on COVID relief, I am encouraged that at least two legislators are also focused on another major and even longer-term challenge: water scarcity.

Today Assemblymembers Robert Rivas (D-Hollister), chair of the Assembly Agriculture Committee and vice-chair of the California Latino Legislative Caucus, and Rudy Salas (D-Bakersfield) introduced a bill, AB 252, to help farmers and rural communities adapt to more sustainable groundwater use while simultaneously creating new benefits for people and wildlife.

“This legislation provides critical economic support to the rural communities in the San Joaquin Valley that will be most impacted by SGMA, while also providing an opportunity to restore some our natural heritage.” — Emmy Cattani, fifth-generation farmer, Cattani Farms, Bakersfield

A bill to help balance groundwater supplies

Groundwater is an important water supply that meets roughly one-third of California’s water needs in an average year and more than half of the state’s needs during droughts, which are becoming more frequent and severe.

As a result of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, passed in 2014 during our last drought, regions with the most critically overdrafted groundwater basins will have to balance supply and demand by 2040.

Local groundwater agencies are still figuring out how exactly to achieve that goal, through strategies like groundwater recharge and well-designed water trading programs.  Still,  one unfortunate outcome is likely: To balance groundwater demand with supply, some agricultural land will have to be taken out of production — as much as 500,000 to 750,000 acres, roughly equivalent to the size of Yosemite National Park.

Bill rewards farmers for water-saving land uses

AB 252, sponsored by EDF, will help create opportunities on these previously irrigated agricultural land and ease the transition to sustainable groundwater management. It will create a new program through the California Department of Conservation to provide incentive payments to landowners who voluntarily and strategically repurpose at least some portion of their agricultural land to other less water-intensive uses for at least 10 years.

Possibilities for these lands include:

  • Restoring habitat for wildlife, including migratory birds, pollinators and endangered species such as the San Joaquin kit fox.
  • Creating wildlife-friendly groundwater recharge basins.
  • Restoring floodplains.
  • Switching cropland to rangeland or dryland farming.
  • Developing parks and community recreation areas. This use is a new addition to a previous version of this legislation, AB 2642, introduced by Salas last year.

AB 252 will create a new program to provide payments to farmers who voluntarily repurpose some portion of their land to less water-intensive uses, such as habitat for the San Joaquin kit fox (pictured), migratory birds and pollinators.

The program will encourage strategic land repurposing by requiring prioritization of lands with the lowest soil quality and greatest potential for new uses. For repurposing land to habitat, for instance, the program highlights the value of targeting lands that create wildlife corridors.

The program will require that special consideration be given to farms and ranches of 500 acres or less and to socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, who have been long overlooked in water and land-use decisions and should be more directly involved as SGMA is implemented.

Preventing a patchwork of dusty, weed-infested lands

The new program also will help minimize two other potential negative consequences of taking agricultural lands out of production: the spread of invasive weeds and greater dust emissions.  Addressing these adverse impacts will protect neighboring farms and public health in a region where air quality already ranks among the nation’s worst.

Without strategic land repurposing encouraged with this new program, the San Joaquin Valley could become a patchwork of dusty barren fields, serving a huge blow to the agriculture sector and rural communities. With a thoughtful plan and sufficient funding, the valley could transform into a model agricultural region that not only helps feed our nation but also supports wildlife, outdoor recreation, soil health, groundwater recharge and flood control.

We are keenly focused on helping to bring that second vision of the valley’s future to fruition. Passage of AB 252 will be an important step toward achieving that goal.

The introduction of AB 252 is an important step toward transforming the San Joaquin Valley into a model agricultural region that feeds our nation and supports wildlife and rural communities. Click To Tweet

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