California repurposes farmland to save its water supply.
By Lisa Owens Viani
Last winter, 31 atmospheric rivers drenched California after an extended drought, filling the state’s reservoirs to the brim for the first time in years and enabling the state’s two main surface water supply systems—which bring fresh water from the mountains to thirsty cities and farms via a complex network of reservoirs, canals, and pipes—to provide all of their promised water allocations. Massive, long-disappeared wetlands such as Tulare Lake in the southern San Joaquin Valley reemerged, and other parts of the valley were still underwater in late spring. But despite the soaking, the state continues to plan for a hotter, drier future, including ways to recharge parched aquifers. “This year was an exception to the rule,” says Andrew Schwartz, the lead scientist and manager of the Central Sierra Snow Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. “We’re in an aridifying climate and things will just continue to get drier.”
The drought took a huge toll on California farms, as surface water deliveries were cut and limits were placed on pumping groundwater. Many of the state’s farmlands are located in groundwater basins that are severely overdrafted—more water is going out than in—and will take time to recharge even with very wet years like this one, says Paul Gosselin, the deputy director of the Sustainable Groundwater Management program at the California Department of Water Resources. “We’re having a linear increase in temperature, and what that’s doing is driving moisture in the air that is resulting in these more severe drought conditions, and on the flip side, more severe atmospheric rivers coming through.”
More Funding to Needed
In response to this whiplash weather and its effects on the state’s groundwater resources and farmlands, California Governor Gavin Newsom allocated $50 million from the state’s 2021–2022 budget and $40 million from the 2022–2023 budget for a new program under the state Department of Conservation, the Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program. In 2022, the program awarded $40 million to four agricultural regions to fallow and find new uses for farmland. In 2023, demand has already exceeded funding: The state received proposals totaling $83 million, according to David Shabazian, the director of the Department of Conservation and a former farmer. In June, the state awarded $35 million to four regional organizations across seven counties to repurpose agricultural lands. He says the funding is designed to respond to the years when surface water supply is lacking, as well as to recharge shriveling groundwater aquifers by taking land out of production (and thereby conserving water), primarily in the state’s agricultural heartland, the Central Valley.
Although not nearly as visible as California’s network of surface water supply, groundwater provides up to 40 percent of the state’s total water supply in average years and as much as 60 percent in drought years, according to Gosselin. Over the past several years, as surface water deliveries were cut back because of ongoing drought, groundwater became increasingly critical—supplying as much as two-thirds of the state’s water demand. “It’s really the backbone of our whole water system,” Gosselin says. Groundwater supply also supports the state’s $50 billion agricultural industry, which provides food for people throughout the United States and globally. Yet it is being overpumped, which can lower groundwater tables, causing subsidence, degraded water quality, dewatered streams, loss of storage, and saltwater intrusion when the subsidence leaves the land below sea level, he explains.
Groundwater pumping in California was not regulated until 2014, when the state passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which directed local entities to form groundwater sustainability agencies and develop management plans for basins considered critically overdrafted. Out of the 515 groundwater basins in the state, 21 fall into that category, according to Gosselin. “They have to look at groundwater levels during wet and dry periods and look at how the basin is affecting users and then set levels at which those undesirable effects are going to occur—and manage [the basins] to avoid those results,” he explains. He says basins are defined as critically overdrafted based on how important groundwater is in a location, including how much agriculture and how many domestic wells the groundwater supports, as well as the total population.
Last year’s round of funding went to areas that have been designated as critically overdrafted, including two in the southern San Joaquin Valley’s Tulare County, one in Madera County, and one in the coastal Salinas Valley, where saltwater intrusion has occurred in some subbasins because of groundwater overdraft. The Salinas Valley Basin Groundwater Sustainability Agency partnered with the California Marine Sanctuary Foundation and San José State University researchers in a $10 million grant to buy land along the Salinas River and restore it to wetlands. Lettuce, artichokes, leafy greens, brussels sprouts, and celery are some of the crops that may be taken out of production. “We need the water back in the ground,” says Donna Meyers, the former general manager of the agency. Jenny Balmagia, the Lower Salinas Valley SGMA watershed coordinator at Central Coast Wetlands Group, and a wetlands restoration expert, says acquiring marginal farmland from willing sellers is the goal. “The idea is to acquire the least valuable land from growers—those pieces of their parcels that flood frequently.”
Other 2022 grantees include the Kaweah Delta Water Conservation District and Greater Kaweah Groundwater Sustainability Agency in Tulare County, which were also awarded $10 million to develop a comprehensive land repurposing program. The Pixley Irrigation District Groundwater Sustainability Agency, also in Tulare County, was awarded $10 million to retire land and develop wildlife habitat—the Tule subbasin must reduce overdraft by more than 115,000 acre-feet (roughly 37.5 billion gallons) annually. And the county of Madera received $10 million to pay farmers to repurpose marginal agricultural lands in three critically overdrafted subbasins with historical groundwater level declines, land subsidence, and degraded groundwater quality.
“We want to incentivize land to be taken out of production where there are domestic drinking water wells—that’s the big picture, to have a multibenefit around drinking water,” says Stephanie Anagnoson, the director of the Water and Natural Resources department in Madera County. “Throughout the valley, domestic drinking water wells are a lot shallower than agricultural wells, so taking marginal land out of production seems like it will allow the domestic wells to continue longer. There are dry wells throughout the county. The first thing is we’ll develop a plan that identifies what those benefits are, what sorts of things people want to pay for. We’ll do a lot of outreach meetings with farmers and communities and then establish rules, and people can choose to participate.”
Shabazian emphasizes that the program is designed to ensure as much as possible that land isn’t simply going fallow but is put to other beneficial uses. “Crop production tends to be more valuable than other uses, but we recognize there are other valuable uses for the land,” he says. Potential uses that can be considered with the grant funding include habitat restoration, park development, dryland farming, and solar power production, among others, according to Shabazian. The program guidelines require projects to benefit groundwater sustainability for a minimum of 10 years.
The Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program puts an emphasis on helping disadvantaged communities where agriculture is the main economy. “I worry about the farmers and their ability to keep their businesses going when losing production, so this is a way to help backstop that—maybe their new crop is rewilding; maybe their new crop is solar panels. My perspective as a farmer is, here’s an opportunity to do something different and still keep my land in some kind of production, even if [it’s] not a crop,” Shabazian explains.
One strength of the program is that it allows communities to make land-use decisions for themselves. The money is distributed in the form of block grants to different regions for partnered organizations, including counties, nonprofits, and others, to decide what they want to do. “If they say carbon sequestration, groundwater recharge, rewilding, solar projects—that’s all on the table. We don’t want to be top-down, we want to enable them to have the ability to write their strategy for their future and then have money in the bank at the end,” Shabazian says. But in light of this past winter’s rains, he says that projects that target the reactivation of floodplains—which will recharge groundwater—will be viewed with great interest. “These rural communities are also suffering now because farmers can’t get into their [still flooded] fields,” Shabazian says. “So the emphasis on these communities is important in both wet and dry circumstances.”
Taking Farmland Out of Production, For Now
Alvar Escriva-Bou, an assistant professor at UCLA and an adjunct fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California, estimates as much as 500,000 acres of farmland could be taken out of production over the next 20 years, either voluntarily or with government subsidies and incentives. Most of the critically overdrafted basins are found in the southern Central Valley, the San Joaquin Valley, where popular crops such as nuts, grapes, and corn are grown, as well as feed crops for cattle such as alfalfa, according to Escriva-Bou, who explains that the valley is overdrawn by two million acre-feet annually. That estimate is derived by subtracting the amount of water used—mostly by crops—from the amount of water flowing from the Sierra and imported from other regions that help recharge the aquifer. “We’ve explored all the supply options, and most are not affordable for farmers—especially those that require large infrastructure investments such as new reservoirs,” he says. “Although groundwater recharge can help alleviate a part of the problem, an important part of the solution will be just to reduce water use. Right now, there is not enough water to fill the hole we have created, even taking advantage of wet years like this.”
Escriva-Bou points out that alfalfa could be imported from places like Idaho, which doesn’t have the option to grow almonds like California does. While almonds use a lot of water, “California is a major supplier of almonds worldwide, almost 80 percent,” Escriva-Bou says. He says fallowing and repurposing land will result in a reduction of only 10 to 15 percent of California’s cropland, and that smart choices can be made about higher- versus lower-value crops. “There’s not one solution for everything. If we do [repurposing] well, economic losses will be much lower. You can switch crops and do alternatives.”
Gosselin says figuring out fixes to the state’s overdraft problem is an “all-hands-on-deck” effort right now, across all state agencies. “The drought of historic proportions really hastened some of the implementation steps some of the agencies have taken,” he says. In recent years, some local agencies limited how much growers could pump, and some had only a quarter of the water they needed to grow their crops, he says, adding that in some areas that grow rice, less than 10 percent of the ground was planted. “It’s an immediate challenge for growers, especially relatively smaller growers who may not have the economy of scale to survive that hit.” After this winter’s heavy rains, the rice fields are flooded once again and back in production—but another drought could easily result in water curtailments again.
He hopes the repurposing program will give growers a “glide path” toward doing different things with their lands while at the same time prioritizing domestic drinking water. He also thinks the repurposing grants are a little like closing up a storefront temporarily versus permanently. “If you board up a storefront permanently, that’s going to impact the community in terms of jobs and well-being, so transitioning to something in a way that benefits the health of the community is very, very important.”
Lisa Owens Viani is a LAM contributing editor who lives in Northern California and is intimately acquainted with drought.
CORRECTION: The original version of this article, published in the August issue, reported that California had limited the amount of water growers could pump for their crops, but those decisions are made at the local rather than state level. The error has been corrected here.