State not ponying up enough $$ for farmland retirement, critics say

September 29, 2022
Jesse Vad, SJV Water
by Jesse Vad, SJV Water
A newly planted almond orchard stretches to the horizon near Kimberlina Road and Highway 99 in Kern County in this May 2022 photo. CREDIT: Lois Henry
Jesse Vad, SJV Water
Jesse Vad, SJV Water

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Though $40 million was added to the state’s farmland retirement pot, some worry it won’t be nearly enough.

Gov. Gavin Newsom authorized the funding Tuesday night to be added to the state’s new Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program.

The program, initially funded with $50 million in 2021,  pays for farmland to be taken out of production and repurposed to less water intensive uses such as groundwater recharge facilities, habitat for wildlife and open spaces for recreation. 

The added $40 million brings total funding to $90 million, but is just a “drop in the bucket,” according to Ann Hayden, associate vice president of nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) water program. EDF has worked closely with the state and other organizations involved in the repurposing program. 

The state senate originally proposed the program receive an additional $500 million, which was significantly whittled down during budget negotiations. 

“We were disappointed to see that they held steady at $40 million,” said Hayden. 

The repurposing program is part of a statewide effort to address plummeting groundwater levels, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley, where declining aquifers have sometimes left entire communities without drinking water, sunk land and damaged infrastructure. 

Some estimates are that nearly one million acres of farmland will need to be taken out of production in the valley to reach groundwater sustainability. 

Nobody has done a rigorous economic analysis of what that will cost, said Hayden. But she suspects it could be well over $1 billion. 

“So that puts the total of $90 million in context,” said Hayden. “And that’s important.”

The first round of the program saw interest exceed available funding.  Three valley agencies were among the successful applicants and each received $10 million for repurposing projects. Those include the Kaweah Delta Water Conservation District, Pixley Irrigation District Groundwater Sustainability Agency and Madera County.

Last week was the kickoff meeting with the grantees from the first round of funding, the state Department of Conservation, EDF and nonprofit Self-Help Enterprises. 

Hayden expects demand to outpace the funding again this time around. 

“If the state truly wants to move the needle on building drought resilience, then it must invest a lot more in this critically important program,” Hayden wrote in an email. “Without sufficient funding to help farmers strategically transition lands to new beneficial uses that require less water, we could be on the road to creating a dust bowl in the valley.”

Jesse Vad, SJV Water }

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