More money could be coming to California’s new farmland repurposing program. But it’s still just a drop in the bucket, according experts.
In his budget summary for 2022-2023, Governor Newsom proposed an additional $40 million for the Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program, a program approved last year to pay farmers incentives for taking irrigated land out of production and converting it to less water intensive uses. The program currently has $50 million in funding which will be doled out to local agencies by the Department of Conservation.
The program came in response to severe overpumping of groundwater in the San Joaquin Valley which has caused problems such as land subsidence and dry wells. With groundwater pumping restrictions looming on the horizon, up to one million acres of farmland may need to be taken out of production in the valley, according to some estimates.
Farmland can be repurposed for a variety of uses such as restored habitat, groundwater recharge facilities, dryland crops and solar, to name a few.
Repurposing farmland is one method local agencies could use to manage groundwater demand reduction. The state has indicated the initial $50 million will likely go to 3-5 local projects, said Ann Hayden, vice president of climate resilient water systems at nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). EDF staff know of at least six different entities planning on applying for the program grants.
“We have little doubt that the demand is out there,” said Hayden.
The $40 million will be discussed in the state Assembly and Senate. The governor’s administration will negotiate with both houses and eventually budget committees will vote, said Hayden. Then it would go to a floor vote and ultimately to the governor’s desk. But those processes can get delayed and take months so it could be some time before any decisions on the additional funding are made, she added.
Even if the $40 million makes it through, it’s just the beginning of needed money, said Hayden.
“Just as a starting point we know that much more than this additional $40 million is going to be needed to really start addressing this issue at scale,” said Hayden. “We have a long way to go.”
According to EDF estimates, the amount of farmland that might need to be taken out of production and repurposed could be a multibillion dollar undertaking, said Hayden.
Hayden said that some people are concerned the program is going to lose steam as attention shifts to fixing local San Joaquin Valley groundwater plans, all of which so far have been deemed “incomplete” by the state Department of Water Resources.
But Hayden hasn’t found that to be true. Groundwater agency staff are prioritizing the repurposing program as a way to incorporate demand reduction into their plans, said Hayden.
“With this budget surplus, now is the time to secure increased funding to help farmers become more resilient to drought and the reality of less water,” wrote Hayden in an email. “This program is one clear strategy to support farmers as they reduce irrigation and voluntarily repurpose some lands to create new benefits like groundwater recharge and habitat.”