Growing Returns

Selected tag(s): SGMA

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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This Leadership Institute graduate sees a path to water security through an often overlooked strategy: innovation.

Joseph Gallegos’ interest in water and climate change began as a hobby after he retired as a telecom executive during the 2015 drought. Tired of watching his lawn go brown, Joseph decided to build a system to take water use by his washing machine and deliver it to his lawn, since no such product existed at the time.

His solution took off and is now available at Lowe’s under the brand Grey4Green, a company Joseph founded that aims to promote water and climate resilience through innovation and community outreach. In 2019, Joseph started working on another system to substantially reduce water use on farms, which is called the aquifer pipe.

I first learned about Joseph’s innovative and entrepreneurial drive when planning for the next cohort of the Leadership Institute, a program he participated in last year facilitated by the Environmental Defense Fund and Rural Community Assistance Corporation. The institute builds capacity and leadership skills so members of disadvantaged and underrepresented communities can more effectively engage in water decision-making and help develop equitable, long-lasting water solutions.

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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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As local movements for groundwater protection rise, will state leaders finally respond?

Across Arizona, the consequences of unlimited groundwater pumping are becoming untenable for many communities. In response, Arizona state Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, has introduced legislation, for the third year in a row, to enable rural communities to manage their groundwater through a new opt-in program called Rural Management Areas (RMAs).

Although the bill again did not receive a committee hearing, this year is very different from the past. Over the last several months, more residents and local stakeholders are becoming engaged and organized around water security and water self-determination, getting mobilized in local settings like town halls, community meetings, and even residents’ living rooms and porches. It has become clear that the people of rural Arizona no longer accept being ignored on water issues at the state level. Here are a few recent examples:

  • Residents in Cochise County, fed up with state inaction to address unfettered groundwater pumping, have submitted signatures for a ballot measure to ask voters to approve a new Active Management Area (AMA) in the Willcox Basin in a local election in November. They are now gathering signatures for a second AMA in the Douglas Basin.
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This farmland repurposing project is delivering 3 benefits. A park may be next.

Sarah Woolf, a member of a Fresno County farm family, is standing on the edge of a field that most recently grew hemp; garlic, tomatoes and onions before that; and cotton years ago. On one side is the dry Arroyo Pasajero Creek, bushes, and a wild, scraggly tree that looks like something from a Dr. Seuss book. On the other side in the far distance is the small farming town of Huron.

This former hemp field has been regraded to recharge groundwater from the creek during the next big storm in order to provide both water supply and flood control benefits. It’s an example of the kind of project that could be funded by the state’s new Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program, which launched this year with an initial $50 million. The program was created to help ease the transition for farmers to sustainable groundwater management while creating new benefits on previously irrigated land.

My colleagues and I recently visited the Arroyo Pasajero Creek and talked with Woolf and later Huron Mayor Rey León about the project and current drought. In addition to conserving water, here are three additional benefits of this land repurposing project — and one envisioned for the future — that they highlighted.

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California’s new farmland repurposing program requires community engagement. This guide describes how.

Many regions in California are embarking on a new era of water and land management strategies as local agencies implement sustainability initiatives and climate change intensifies droughts and water scarcity.

However, too often low-income rural communities have had little opportunity to influence land and water decisions that directly impact — and often harm — them, resulting in such outcomes as wells drying up and limited access to parks.

California’s new Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program aims to ensure these communities as well as small-scale farmers are more involved in land and water use planning by making their engagement a requirement for funding recipients.

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Gov. Newsom proposed nearly doubling funds for a new farmland repurposing program. Here are 4 ways it can help people and wildlife.

This month Gov. Gavin Newsom took another important step in supporting the San Joaquin Valley and sustainable groundwater management by proposing $40 million in additional funds for the new Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program, which he and the Legislature created last year with $50 million in initial funding.

This voluntary program aims to help farmers reduce groundwater use by repurposing farmland to other uses that deliver new benefits, including outdoor recreational spaces, wildlife habitat, renewable energy, soil health and groundwater recharge.

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Developing rural water leaders as drought and water scarcity intensify

An immigrant who left Mexico when he was young to make a new life in California. The owner of a small family farm who grew up in the Central Valley. A water utility operator who served in the Navy.

These are among the diverse participants who graduated at the end of July from our fourth cohort of the Water Leadership Institute, a program developed to help rural communities more effectively participate in water decision-making and policy.

EDF partnered with the Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) and Self Help Enterprises six years ago, after passage of California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), to develop the Water Leadership Institute. The West Turlock Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) joined forces with EDF and RCAC to bring the institute to Stanislaus County for this fourth installment, which was hosted online due to COVID-19.

Over 15 weeks, I had the wonderful opportunity to get to know these leaders better as they developed skills and understanding that will help them become stronger advocates for their water resources and their communities.

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As drought intensifies, this California water manager is testing new tools to help farmers, communities and wildlife

Aaron Fukuda

Aaron Fukuda is general manager of the Tulare Irrigation District, general manager of the Mid-Kaweah Groundwater Sustainability Agency and a participant in the Kaweah Regional Conservation Investment Strategy steering committee process.

Growing up in Hanford, California, Aaron Fukuda learned about the connections between water, animals and plants at an early age. His mother, a biologist, taught him how to study owl pellets and how rain changed the landscape when he was a kid.

As an adult, Fukuda is more focused on what’s happening both on the ground and underground with the region’s increasingly scarce water supplies.

Fukuda wears three hats that give him a unique perspective on the region’s water and land issues as general manager of the Tulare Irrigation District, general manager of the Mid-Kaweah Groundwater Sustainability Agency and a participant in the Kaweah Regional Conservation Investment Strategy (RCIS) steering committee process. Read More »

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