Between global warming, the California drought and the reality of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), Central Valley farmers are already taking land out of production. 

As we all know, the extreme drought has resulted in wells going dry and farmland in our area sinking. This has required expenditure of multi-millions of dollars to rebuild existing concrete canals both on the Westside and Eastside to deliver the Sierra water supply we all count on.

We are not talking about new water or additional dam storage but existing infrastructure that has supplied farms and communities for decades.

Last month we all celebrated an Atmospheric River storm that waded into California with the first big storm of the winter season. 

But water managers like Dan Vink from Tulare County realize this is simply a temporary pause in the multi-year drought. Instead we are looking at ”a future where we will experience longer, multi-year periods of droughts interrupted by big storms.” 

This altered reality requires new strategies to survive.

Vink has joined with Jay Ziegler of the Nature Conservancy to encourage targeted land retirement as a way we can help farmers.The two policy influencers write about the issue this month in an article published by the California Farm Bureau.

In a word, retirement of some parched farmland will balance water supply for the rest of us by repurposing these lands, they say.

“To bring the basins into balance and meet the requirements of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act will require fallowing land in the range of 500,000 acres in the years ahead, possibly much more depending on the solutions we can create.

Crop switching and increasing water use efficiency through infrastructure improvements and soil management practices, such as those supported by the California Department of Food and Agriculture and U.S. Department of Agriculture National Resources Conservation Service, are part of the water-balancing equation. But we will need more tools in critically overdrafted basins to achieve long-term water use sustainability.

The state budget adopted by the legislature and Gov. Newsom offers real hope for land repurposing. There is a path forward in a new pilot effort — funded with $50 million in the state budget — where we have a potential to strike a new balance by strategically retiring certain lands that can provide other public benefits.

These benefits are vast and include groundwater recharge and habitat for millions of migratory birds, renewable solar energy generation, public recreation, improved air and water quality for local communities, and restoration of upland habitats for endangered species.

Nature Conservancy expects this could lead to recover and delist over 10 species that are currently on the Endangered Species list — what would be the largest recovery in the history of the Endangered Species Act.

“The benefits of repurposing the least sustainable agricultural lands are clear, but it will come with very real costs to individual landowners, the broader community that relies on this agricultural economy and the reliability of a locally produced food supply. That is why retirement and restoration must be done strategically and in partnership with local communities, farmers and irrigation districts.

The Nature Conservancy and other organizations are developing and testing approaches to strategic land retirement and restoration where targeted restoration can be best achieved with minimal additional impacts to the agricultural economy and food production.

New partnerships and broad collaboration are needed to shape changes in land use across the San Joaquin Valley in a way that increases the long-term viability of agriculture while improving social and environmental outcomes.

An ongoing partnership between the Pixley and Lower Tule groundwater sustainability agencies in Tulare County, Audubon California and The Nature Conservancy to develop a pilot project is one example of such a collaboration. The Nature Conservancy and Audubon California are providing scientific capacity to the newly-formed Tule Basin Land and Water Conservation Trust to inform how strategic land retirement can best be positioned in the Tule Subbasin, using analyses to evaluate optimal selection of lands for multiple benefits.

The Nature Conservancy is also co-investing in land use transition projects to demonstrate what is possible. New partnerships and broad collaboration are needed to shape San Joaquin Valley land retirement in a way that increases the long-term viability of agriculture while improving social and environmental outcomes.”

Water manager Aaron Fukuda is another local leader working in the greater Kaweah watershed with a Regional Conservation Investment Strategy program funded through the state. Fukuda wants  to bring new funding to reimburse growers for repurposing some farmland into wildlife habitat that would require little to no water to support.

Clearly this “repurposing" is happening big time in western Kings County where solar panels have replaced King Cotton as the big money maker in these parts.

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