Bill aimed at repurposing farmland is a step closer to passing

August 20, 2021
Jesse Vad, SJV Water reporting intern
by Jesse Vad, SJV Water reporting intern
A Kern County wheat field turns golden in this 2019 file photo. Pending groundwater restrictions may force 1 million acres of Central Valley farmland to be idled. A bill in the state Legislature would create a program to fund new uses for that land. CREDIT: Lois Henry
Jesse Vad, SJV Water reporting intern
Jesse Vad, SJV Water reporting intern

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Lawmakers may be close to passing a bill aimed at helping farmers cope with water restrictions.

Assembly Bill 252, the Multibenefit Land Repurposing Incentive Program, would set up a program under the California Department of Conservation to use grant money for repurposing former ag land in critically over drafted groundwater basins. The bill was authored by Assemblymembers Robert Rivas (D-Hollister) and Rudy Salas (D-Bakersfield.)

The bill has passed the Assembly and is heading to the Senate Appropriations Committee on August 23 where it will likely go to the Suspense File.

“I think everyone recognizes we’re locked into a certain amount of irrigated land becoming idled in the next few years,” said Miles Horton, legislative director for Rivas. “Let’s make the most of this opportunity.”

He referred to likely restrictions on groundwater pumping under the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. SGMA, as it’s known, created local groundwater agencies to gradually bring aquifers into balance, meaning more water isn’t pumped out than goes back in. The law won’t be in full effect until 2040.

To meet SGMA goals in the Central Valley, it is estimated that up to one million acres of farmland may have to be taken out of production.

Without a plan for repurposing, fallowed farmland could create a patchwork of dusty, pest-ridden, hazardous land, said Horton. The grants from the repurposing program would support a variety of new land uses such as wildlife habitat, groundwater recharge, rangeland or dryland farming, he added.

Horton is expecting the bill to pass the Senate and be signed by Governor Newsom.

“I think they’re positive on the bill,” he said of the governor’s staff.

In Newsom’s May budget revise, he added $500 million specifically for multi benefit land repurposing to his $5.1 billion drought response and water infrastructure package. Newsom will be hashing out the drought package with legislative leaders over the next couple weeks.

AB 252 doesn’t have any funding in the bill. It creates a program to administer grant funding.

As for the Senate Appropriations Committee, senators haven’t “shown their cards,” when it comes to the bill, said Horton.

If the bill gets past the Suspense File, it will go to the Senate Floor. Then it would need to go back to the Assembly for another vote since there have been amendments. If all goes well for the bill, it will be on Newsom’s desk in mid-September. The bill has an urgency clause meaning if it’s passed it will go into effect immediately.

“Water supplies to support communities, agriculture and wildlife are dwindling at a truly alarming rate — and we haven’t even fully recovered from the last major drought that ended just five years ago,” wrote Anna Schiller, water and lands project manager for the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund, in an email. “It is critical that state legislators step up now and make clear that land repurposing is a high priority to bolster the state’s resilience to climate change.”

AB 252 is supported by a wide range of support from environmentalists to irrigation districts. The Environmental Defense Fund is a sponsor of the bill. It has not listed opposition.

“Knowing what dire straits we’re in, 12 of the last 15 years have been drought years, we really need to start thinking ahead about what land use is going to look like moving forward, that we can’t maintain agriculture at its current level,” said Jennifer Clary, California state director for Clean Water Action. “This bill at least gives us a toehold into starting that discussion.”

Jesse Vad, SJV Water reporting intern }

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.

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