Growing Returns

Selected tag(s): land repurposing

Taking a big leap to solve California water problems: How uncommon partners are finding common ground on the water

This blog is co-authored by Joshua Viers, Professor and Program Director, Secure Water Future, University of California, Merced

There we were, 19 of us on the stony shore of the Tuolumne River, feeling a bit stranded like the crew of Gilligan’s Island.

Our “Finding Common Water” rafting excursion was planned around “no water Wednesday,” when river releases are held back for water conservation and infrastructure maintenance. The trip’s goal: Get off our desk chairs and onto rafts, out of the ordinary and into an extraordinary setting — a hot, highly regulated, wild and scenic river —  to push us out of our comfort zone and get to work on addressing real water problems.

Working with All-Outdoors whitewater expeditions, EDF and UC Merced teamed up to create the trip. Our premise was that paddling a raft together — and yanking each other back into the boats by our life vests — can build camaraderie and help find areas of agreement in ways that Zoom meetings just can’t.

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California’s new Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program is already oversubscribed. Here are 3 features of successful applications.

Last month, the state of California reached an important milestone in its effort to proactively address water scarcity and the changing agricultural landscape: The Department of Conservation awarded over $40 million to regional organizations to strategically repurpose previously irrigated farmland in ways that create new public benefits while reducing groundwater use.

The highly competitive Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program (MLRP) received 12 applications requesting over $110 million  — more than twice the funding available during the program’s inaugural year. The four successful proposals, which received $10 million each, came from critically overdrafted groundwater subbasins in the San Joaquin and Salinas valleys. Here are three common features that gave the successful applications a competitive edge.

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Drought in California is intensifying. It’s time to rise to the challenge.

Record-setting high temperatures in the 90s — in April. The driest first three months of the year in California history. Another drought executive order from the governor calling for more water conservation and requiring protection of existing groundwater wells. These are all signs that the drought is continuing to rear its ugly head in our Golden State and indeed much of the West.

On top of that, the recently released climate report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that if we don’t get serious about making “immediate and deep” cuts in emissions everywhere, the impacts — including droughts — will become even more severe.

But that report also offered hope, noting we still have the tools and sufficient capital and liquidity to limit warming and its impacts. Similarly, in California, we are fortunate to have a mammoth $29 billion budget surplus this year. If deployed effectively, this windfall gives the Newsom administration and state leaders the unique opportunity to help the nation’s most productive agricultural region successfully transition to limited but more resilient water supplies in an equitable way.

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Report provides guidance on repurposing California farmland to benefit water, landowners, communities and wildlife

Over the coming decades, California’s San Joaquin Valley will transition to sustainable groundwater management under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), ensuring reliable groundwater supplies for generations to come. Sustainable groundwater management and a changing climate will inevitably affect how land is used on a sweeping scale.

By some estimates, the amount of farmland that will have to be taken out of production to balance groundwater demand and supply is equivalent to the size of Yosemite National Park — a transition that could serve a huge blow to the agricultural economy, rural communities and the environment.  At the same time, farmers are also facing steep declines in surface water supplies from rivers and melted snowpack, largely driven by climate change, as they learned just this week.

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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. Read More »

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