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Farming for Resilience

For more than a century, Californians have relied on wells to provide water for towns and farms. This seemingly unending resource supported the Central Valley and the agricultural economy we know today. Only recently has it become clear how much water we were pumping or how much water was left. The answer is too much, and not enough.

Managing Groundwater Sustainably

In order to curb the overuse and overdraw of groundwater aquifers across the state, the California Legislature passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) back in 2014. This legislation is meant to recalibrate California’s groundwater use towards sustainability.

SGMA divides the state into discrete groundwater basins that are required to create a plan for managing groundwater use in that region. Plans must be implemented starting in 2020, with each basin demonstrating sustainable management by 2040. Given historic overuse, significant reductions of groundwater pumping are going to be required. This is particularly true in the San Joaquin Valley where agriculture has relied on groundwater for decades to augment the often-seasonal supply of surface water.

The full consequences of implementation are not yet fully realized, but reductions in groundwater pumping are likely to constrain agriculture. In the San Joaquin Valley alone, the Public Policy Institute of California estimates that more than 500,000 acres of currently farmed land may be fallowed (i.e., taken out of production) in order to comply with SGMA restrictions.

Supporting an Economic Transition to Resilience

We believe it is possible to recreate a resilient Central Valley, one that balances a vibrant agricultural economy with sustainable resource use for both people and nature. If agricultural land is taken out of production there is an opportunity to create other environmental benefits. For instance, farmers could turn their fallowed land into critical wildlife habitat for the endangered San Joaquin Kit Fox, or implement projects that improve air, soil, and water quality.

Working closely with EDF and other partners in the Central Valley, we are exploring how to support landowners as these new requirements are implemented, and agricultural producers are left deciding if they should fallow some, or all, of their land for groundwater benefit. Earlier this year, our team conducted a demand analysis to understand the level of financial and technical resources available to landowners to create ecosystem benefits on permanently or temporarily fallowed land. What we found left us feeling hopeful for the future of the Central Valley.

Resources are out there

There is already more than $30MM of funding available per year to support private landowners interested in creating ecosystem benefits on their land. By further directing investments of the three largest sources of support—federal funding, state funding, and habitat mitigation—toward land conversion in the Central Valley, total funding has the potential to double to around $60MM/year. For example,

  • The State of California dedicates millions of dollars per year to conservation efforts. Proposition 3, which will be voted on in the 2018 midterms elections, would direct an additional $14M/year to create ecosystem benefits in the Central Valley focused on water quality and groundwater recharge.
  • Although unlikely to grow under the current Administration, USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) already provides significant cost-share funding and technical assistance to farmers and ranchers to implement practices that improve habitat, soil, water, and air. Future emphasis could be placed on practices implemented on fallowed land in this region.
  • There is significant demand for species mitigation in the Central Valley; over the last 10 years, an average of 500 species credits/year were sold from mitigation banks in the San Joaquin Valley. The new Regional Conservation Investment Strategy (RCIS) program could also create a new mechanism for landowners to develop and sell mitigation credits generated after fallowing.

Meet agricultural producers in the middle

Through our interviews with agricultural producers in the region, it is clear that they understand the importance of sustainable land management and groundwater use, and see value in positively contributing to these efforts. However, SGMA implementation is complicated, and farmers are likely to be the hardest hit. We must make it easier for landowners to get the information they need to make decisions that are sound for their business and the resources they manage.

“We are working with EDF because we want to support wildlife on our farm. We just have to figure out how to make it make sense financially. We can’t do it alone.” – Producer Interview, 2018

The importance of Groundwater Markets

Through our interviews with producers and conservation partners, it is clear that creating markets for water trading is a critical component of SGMA implementation. Water markets can help landowners and funders understand the tradeoffs between growing crops and creating other benefits on managed lands. Water credits can also create the foundation for additional benefits, such as groundwater recharge projects that also create habitat for migratory birds. These types of multi-benefit projects create opportunities to leverage multiple funding sources and achieve positive impacts beyond an individual funder’s goals.

“It is clear to me that water markets and water trading must be part of the solution.” – Producer Interview, 2018

The Sustainable Path Forward

There is no doubt that a big transition in California land use is coming. However, our research shows that there is a path forward for bringing groundwater use into balance in a way that supports agricultural producers and creates opportunities for numerous environmental benefits. We look forward to continuing our work with EDF and partners to leverage current and emerging funding opportunities to support this shift and help the Central Valley to become a more resilient landscape.

About the Author

Kristen Boysen is an Associate with Environmental Incentives and supports habitat and infrastructure work in California. Kristen focuses on creating new opportunities to align human and natural systems to improve conservation and sustainable land use across the West.


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