On the Water Front

Selected tag(s): california drought

Here’s how land repurposing is beginning to transform strained communities and ecosystems in California

Satellite image of California's Central Valley

California’s sprawling Central Valley is confronting declining groundwater levels and increasing ‘climate whiplash’ between drought and flood.

Next time you find yourself looking up driving directions on your phone, scroll over to central California and zoom out a bit. Turn on the satellite layer. What you’ll see is a mindboggling patchwork. A massive brown and green checkerboard, cut up in rectangles, sliced by highways, besieged by a ring of arid foothills. This is California’s famed and troubled Central Valley — an agricultural powerhouse that’s increasingly associated with headlines about disappearing groundwater and growing waves of flood and drought. Filled with sharp lines, it’s not a landscape one would immediately associate with collaboration and transformation.  

MLRP Annual Report Cover

Download a copy of the first-ever MLRP Annual Report

Yet genuine cross-sector collaboration driving tangible ground transformations is exactly what jumps off the page of a new report — the first-ever annual stock take of California’s Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program. Launched in 2022, the program is a bold attempt to help communities repurpose irrigated agricultural land to uses that reduce reliance on groundwater while providing a plethora of new benefits including community health, economic well-being, water supply, habitat, renewable energy, and climate resilience. It’s a crucial initiative many western states — faced with similar baseline realities of finite, declining groundwater — are keeping a close eye on.  

The new report is the first big-picture snapshot of progress on the ground so far. It reveals a set of ambitious and diverse regional objectives fueled by broad new partnerships built on the desire to find common ground and shared solutions to California’s uncertain groundwater future.  

Here are some key takeaways from the report: 

The program is transforming more than land — it is building broad, often surprising, coalitions. Each have potential for catalyzing long-term climate resilience. 

Over 56 different organizations — ranging from community, environmental, agricultural, and conservation — signed up to partner and collaborate with the four main applicant teams in the first round of MLRP funding awarded in spring 2022. A second round of funding in spring 2023 saw 36 more organizations join as partners and collaborators. In short, in just over two years of activity, the program has brought nearly 100 organizations together to work collectively on land transformation. 

Applicants listen in at an MLRP introduction session.

This collaboration is not merely an exercise on paper. The new report details how each of the awarded applicants have spent significant time and resources on community engagement — with many building project selection committees formed of interested and affected parties.  

In addition, Self-Help Enterprises and Environmental Defense Fund lead a Statewide Support Entity which has facilitated virtual and in-person collaboration amongst partners, including hosting monthly meetings with grantees, organizing learning events, creating guidance materials and resources to support grant implementation, and offering guidance to support block grantee engagement activities. 

The rhythm of in-person collaboration and learning is creating a community of practice that will have important echoes beyond MLRP-specific projects. It is exactly this kind of partnership building that will serve the state well as it faces up to intensifying waves of climate challenges.   

Emerging projects show a diverse range of strategies, benefits, and partners involved. 

As grantees transition from community engagement to identifying regional priorities, establishing project selection processes and beginning implementation, the diverse range and significant potential impact of emerging projects is becoming clear.  

Map of funded grant applicants from first round. (Figure B. Multibenefit Land Repurposing Project Annual Report 2023)

There’s an understated but persistent creative energy to the list of potential projects described in the report. A proposed pilot program, for example, will support the transition of farmworkers to high-skilled jobs in a water recycling buildout. Another will create a wildlife habitat corridor between the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. Other proposals focus on repurposing marginal farmland to improve groundwater recharge in areas where domestic wells are going dry. A coastal proposal focuses on restoring a floodplain along a canal while building out a new park connecting a beach to a historically disadvantaged community. 

The total impact of these projects will likely far outweigh the relatively light investment involved ($84m in funding so far). The regions receiving funding cover 3.3 million acres, the equivalent of 4.5 Yosemite National Parks and 5,258 Lake Tahoes! These areas face some of the most severe environmental justice challenges in the state – the program’s eight block regions together cover over 120 state designated disadvantaged communities.  

There are potential positive impacts on Tribal lands as well. The Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians in Sonoma County, for example, has been awarded a grant to enhance groundwater recharge in the Alexander Valley Subbasin to provide groundwater sustainability benefits there and in the Santa Rosa Plain Subbasin. 

There is strong interest in and need for further funding.

As the report makes clear, the land repurposing program is increasingly in-demand across California. In the first round of funding, 8 of the 12 regions that applied were unsuccessful due to limited funding availability (representing over $100M in funding requested and only $40M available for block grants). The numbers were similar in the second round: 6 of the 10 regions that applied were unsuccessful with a total of $85M in funding requested and only $35M available for block grants. Continued program funding would help meet the extremely high demand for land repurposing, contributing to the achievement of important SGMA benchmarks and strengthening efforts to transition California to more resilient land and water systems.  

MLRP engagment by numbers. (Figure A. Multibenefit Land Repurposing Project Annual Report 2023)

 As California faces a groundwater crisis that threatens to leave farmland barren, programs like MLRP are increasingly vital to support a more collective and thoughtful transition that supports healthy ecosystems and communities. This new snapshot of MLRP at work offers a picture of collaboration, creativity, and progress that can guide us as we work towards a more resilient water and land future for all. 


Curious about exactly how locally-led land repurposing might ensure reliable water supply, boost local communities, and revive ecosystems? EDF’s Ann Hayden spoke with Waterloop for a special episode on land repurposing. This is the interactive primer you need! The episode showcases the full potential of this approach via visits to Pixley National Wildlife Refuge, Kaweah Oaks Preserve, Joseph Gallo Farms, and Castroville Slough Treatment Wetlands:


Un nuevo informe muestra como el Programa de Reutilización de Tierras de Beneficios Múltiples está creando las bases para transformar el uso del suelo, la gestión hídrica y las comunidades vulnerables.  

La próxima vez que te encuentres buscando direcciones en tu teléfono móvil, mueve el mapa hacia el centro de California y haz zoom. Activa la capa de satélite. Lo que verás es un desconcertante mosaico. Un inmenso tablero de ajedrez marrón y verde, dividido en rectángulos, cortado por autopistas, rodeado por colinas y montañas. Este es el famoso y problemático Valle Central de California, potencia mundial en producción agrícola que cada vez más se asocia con titulares sobre la sobreexplotación de aguas subterráneas, las crecientes olas de inundaciones y sequías. No es un paisaje que uno asociaría inmediatamente con colaboración y  transformación. 

Sin embargo, la colaboración es lo que está impulsando acciones y es lo que resalta en las páginas de un nuevo informe –  el primer informe anual del Programa de Reutilización de Tierras de Beneficios Múltiples de California (MLRP, por sus siglas en inglés). Comenzado en 2022, el programa MLRP es un sobresaliente esfuerzo para ayudar a las comunidades rurales a reutilizar tierras agrícolas irrigadas para otros usos que reduzcan la dependencia de las aguas subterráneas y que proporcionen otros beneficios, incluidos beneficios al bienestar y salud de comunidades, oportunidades económicas, mejoramiento del suministro de agua, mejoramientos al hábitat, proyectos de energía renovable y resiliencia climática. Esta es una iniciativa crucial que muchos estados del oeste, enfrentados a realidades similares de escasez de agua y sobreexplotación de aguas subterráneas están observando de cerca. 

El nuevo informe es el primer documento que muestra el progreso hecho hasta ahora. Sobresale la diversidad de objetivos regionales derivados del dialogo entre sectores (principalmente comunidades, granjeros, grupos de conservación y agencias de agua) y el deseo de encontrar áreas y soluciones en común para construir el futuro de las aguas subterráneas en California. 

Puntos clave del informe: 

El programa está transformando más que el uso de la tierra: está construyendo colaboraciones con un fuerte potencial para catalizar la resiliencia climática a largo plazo. 

Más de 56 organizaciones diferentes, que van desde comunitarias, ambientales, agrícolas y de conservación, se inscribieron para asociarse y colaborar con los cuatro equipos que recibieron financiamiento en la primera ronda del programa, otorgada en la primavera de 2022. La segunda ronda de financiamiento, otorgada en la primavera de 2023, 36 organizaciones más se unieron como socios y colaboradores en otros cuatro equipos regionales. En resumen, en poco más de dos años de actividad, el programa ha reunido a casi 100 organizaciones para trabajar colectivamente en la transformación de las regiones participantes. 

Estas colaboraciones no son simplemente un ejercicio en papel. El nuevo informe detalla cómo  las organizaciones  que participan con las regiones beneficiarias han dedicado tiempo y recursos. Estos han sido enfocados principalmente a la participación comunitaria, claves para definir prioridades regionales y  selección de proyectos. 

Además, Self-Help Enterprises (SHE) y Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) lideran la entidad de apoyo estatal que ha facilitado la cooperación virtual y presencial entre los beneficiarios y sus colaboradores. Mediante la organización de reuniones mensuales, la organización de una comunidad de practica y aprendizaje, la creación de materiales  y recursos para apoyar la implementación de proyectos, y ofreciendo orientación para apoyar las actividades de participación comunitaria. 

Estas colaboraciones están creando una comunidad que tendrá un rol importante más allá del programa. La construcción de alianzas y aprendizajes  están definiendo las bases para enfrentar los desafíos e impactos del cambio climáticos desde un enfoque local. 

 Los proyectos emergentes muestran una variedad de estrategias, beneficios y grupos involucrados. 

A medida que los beneficiarios del programa pasan de la participación comunitaria a la identificación de prioridades regionales, el establecimiento de procesos de selección de proyectos y el inicio de la implementación de proyectos, está quedando claro la diversidad de propuestas y los beneficios que los proyectos pueden tener. 

Existe una gran energía creativa demostrada en las propuestas que están siendo planeadas y descritas en el informe. Por ejemplo, un programa piloto apoyará la transición de trabajadores agrícolas a empleos altamente calificados enfocados en el reciclaje de agua. Otro proyecto creará un corredor de hábitat silvestre que conecte las montañas de la Sierra Nevada con el Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre de Merced (Merced National Wildlife Refuge). Otras propuestas se centran en la reutilización de tierras agrícolas marginales para mejorar la recarga de aguas subterráneas en áreas donde comunidades han tenido fallos de pozos. Una propuesta costera se centra en restaurar una llanura aluvial a lo largo de un canal que también tendrá un parque que conecte acceso a la playa con una comunidad vulnerable. 

El beneficio de estos proyectos probablemente superará con creces la inversión relativamente corta  ($ 84 millones en financiamiento hasta ahora). Las regiones que reciben financiamiento del programa cubren 3.3 millones de acres, ¡equivalente a 4.5 Parques Nacionales de Yosemite y 5,258 Lagos Tahoe! Estas áreas enfrentan algunos de los desafíos de justicia ambiental más graves en el estado. Las ocho regiones del programa cubren más de 120 comunidades desfavorecidas (DACs por sus siglas en ingles), estatus designado por el estado. 

También hay posibles beneficios para comunidades tribales. Por ejemplo, la Banda de Pomo Indians de Dry Creek Ranchería en el Condado de Sonoma ha recibido una subvención para mejorar la recarga de aguas subterráneas en la Subcuenca del Valle de Alexander y en la Subcuenca de la Llanura de Santa Rosa mejorando la sustentabilidad de aguas subterráneas. 

Hay un fuerte interés y necesidad de más financiamiento.  

Como deja claro el informe, el programa de reutilización de tierras está cada vez más en demanda en todo California. En la primera ronda de financiamiento, 8 de las 12 regiones que solicitaron no tuvieron éxito debido a la disponibilidad limitada de fondos (representando más de $ 100 millones solicitados y solo $ 40 millones disponibles para subvenciones). Los números fueron similares en la segunda ronda: 6 de las 10 regiones que solicitaron no tuvieron éxito con un total de $ 85 millones solicitados y solo $ 35 millones disponibles para subvenciones. La continuación del financiamiento del programa ayudaría a satisfacer la demanda extremadamente alta de reutilización de tierras, contribuyendo al logro de importantes objetivos de la Ley de Gestión Sostenible de las Aguas Subterráneas (SGMA, por sus siglas en inglés) y fortaleciendo los esfuerzos para la transición a sistemas de tierra y agua más resilientes en California. 

A medida que California enfrenta una crisis de aguas subterráneas que amenaza con dejar los campos agrícolas vacíos, programas como el MLRP son cada vez más vitales para apoyar una transición más colectiva y estratégica que promueva ecosistemas y comunidades saludables. Este informe del programa ofrece una imagen de colaboración, creatividad y progreso que puede guiarnos mientras trabajamos hacia un futuro hídrico y terrestre más resiliente para todos. 

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Rosa learned how to help her community get reliable, clean water. You can too.

Aerial view shows algae at O’Neill Forebay, a joint Federal-State facility and part of the State Water Project in Merced County, California. Algal blooms may contain toxins that can be harmful to people and pets. Photo taken May 25, 2022.
Florence Low / California Department of Water Resources, FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY

In 2022, Rosa applied for the Water Leadership Institute. Her motivation? To actively address severe water challenges impacting her family in El Nido in Merced County. Located in California’s breadbasket, Merced County is a scene of abundance with lush fields, orchards, and prospering dairy farms. Yet, beneath this scene lies a harsh reality. Rosa’s family and neighbors grappled with the consequences of water contamination, a pervasive issue with a grasp on daily life.

For years, Rosa made the bi-weekly trek to purchase clean water for her family’s ranch. Routinely, she stocked up on large quantities of jugs and bottled water to ensure her family had safe water to cook, clean, and drink. When this water ran low, they reluctantly turned to their domestic well for cleaning and personal care. Her family was aware that the well was not clean, but that was the best alternative available. Oftentimes, when they turned on the faucet, the water was foamy, had a strange smell, and ran white, the same color as the milk from the nearby dairy farms. She and her neighbors even began noticing their hair would fall out when they used the faucet water for bathing.

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Fields of Innovation: A Trip Showcasing Multi-Benefit Land Repurposing

Embarking on a field trip can often feel like stepping into a storybook, especially when the narrative and scenery revolve around transforming landscapes. This feeling was palpable last November when the Environmental Defense Fund organized a trip to Merced and Stanislaus Counties in California. The journey wasn’t just a tour; it was a vivid illustration of how multi-benefit land repurposing (MLRP) is bolstering groundwater sustainability in areas hardest hit by climate change.  Read More »

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Hispanic Heritage Month: meet local leaders helping communities address key water issues

As Hispanic Heritage Month ends, we celebrate our Hispanic Water Leadership Institute alumni making a difference in their communities.

Nearly 20% of the United States identifies as Hispanic. The largest minority group in the country is also the largest group disproportionately impacted by contaminated groundwater. This is due to a lack of resources and widespread inequities in funding, policies, investment in water infrastructure and education.

EDF’s Water Leadership Institute annually hosts a cohort of leaders working tirelessly to address these inequities. These remarkable leaders are mobilizing their communities and advocating for change by securing funding, advocating for policy shifts, and engaging their community members on local water challenges.

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Water Leadership Institute reunion: Bridging connections over water

This blog is co-authored by Sue Ruiz (Education Manager, Self-Help Enterprises), Chris Freimund (Director of Development, Watershed Progressive), and Laura Dubin, Rural Community Assistance Corporation

During a rainy Saturday in Visalia, graduates from the Water Leadership Institute (WLI) gathered for an alumni reunion. It only seemed fitting that alumni congregated to discuss solutions to water challenges in an area that historically suffered from drought and recently suffered from severe flooding.

Co-hosted by the Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC), Self-Help Enterprises (SHE), and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the gathering was meant to foster a support network for community water leaders and influence the future of the WLI. The alumni reunion also included local organizations that work to engage communities to promote equity and water resilience, including the Community Water Center (CWC), Watershed Progressive, and Linguistica Interpreting and Translation. Read More »

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Collaboration and strategic land repurposing: An interview with Julie Rentner, President of River Partners

Most of California’s Central Valley is dedicated to productive and diverse farmland, helping make California the country’s fruit, nut, and vegetable basket. However, due in part to increasingly intense and variable climate conditions, we must manage agricultural landscapes to ensure productivity and reliance for future generations.  The 2,100-acre Dos Rios Ranch Preserve near Modesto is an inspiring example of how marginal farmland can be reimagined to support sustainable agriculture. It also serves as a model to create an abundance of new community and environmental benefits, similar to the types of projects that will be funded by California’s new Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program, a program that incentivizes landowners to voluntarily repurpose land to support long-term water sustainability in the Central Valley. Furthermore, the organization has planted over 350,000 native trees and vegetation, restored 8 miles of riverfront land, and created nearly 250 jobs — an overall success for the area’s ecosystems and economy. The Ranch provides a multitude of new uses, building biodiversity, recreational, climate resilience, cultural, and flood control benefits while improving the health and stability of our water systems which are the backbone of our economy.

Photo Credit: River Partners

We asked Julie Rentner, President of River Partners, to sit down with EDF to discuss the Preserve’s beginnings and journey from irrigated cropland to one of the state’s most significant and largest private-public floodplain restoration projects.

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