Tulare County land trust embarks on projects to protect groundwater and farming

November 30, 2023
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
by Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
Tule Trust Board Member and farmer Frank Junio stands in the Bureau of Land Management wildlife area in Atwell Island to study natural habitat features for use in the trust's restoration project at Capinero Creek, a former 467-acre dairy. COURTESY: Susan Long, Tule Basin Land & Water Conservation Trust
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water

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A unique land trust in southwestern Tulare County that aims to preserve farming by strategically fallowing land for habitat is moving forward on several projects.

The Tule Basin Land & Water Conservation Trust was formed in 2020 by area farmers and water managers intent on finding solutions to the region’s groundwater woes that didn’t include a massive and random shuttering of productive farmland.

How is it possible to save farming through fallowing?

The trust’s ongoing Capinero Creek and Lower Deer creek projects are two examples.

Capinero Creek is a 467-acre former dairy next to the Pixley National Wildlife Refuge. The project, funded by a grant from the Bureau of Reclamation, will restore alkali scrub habitat on the site for threatened and endangered species. 

The Lower Deer Creek Watershed project seeks to find marginal farm ground that can instead be used for wildlife-friendly recharge basins.

The objective of both projects is to retire less productive land and save its associated groundwater for both farming and the ecosystem. 

Getting to work

“Now I feel like we’re getting stuff done,” said Susan Long, Executive Director of the trust. “We spent 2023 building a foundation, and we will be putting things into action in 2024 developing our projects.” 

Establishing that foundation has been key. Long and others in the trust had to get buy-in from farmers and water managers grappling with looming water restrictions under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

In the Pixley Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) alone, SGMA restrictions will mean 20,000 acres have to come out of production, according to General Manager Eric Limas.

That’s a huge economic, political and emotional change for the region.

Softening the blows

Long’s goal has been for the trust to be seen as a solution.

“I want people to see that the trust is an organization that is here to help sustain our way of life in the Valley,” said Long, who joined the trust a year ago from Self-Help Enterprises. “Change is necessary but we can honor the values we have in our farming industry and find solutions that will help make that happen. We are working for the best interest of the area and its landowners. We want to soften the blows that keep coming at them.”

Limas said initially there was apprehension in the farming community related to the trust but the tide is turning.

“The trust and their staff are doing a good job of outreach and education and showing farmers that they are here as a resource and a tool to help them reach sustainability, and not to work against them,” he said. “I think that shows in the level of participation the trust has been able to get from farmers in the current programs the trust is offering.”

Capinero Creek habitat restoration project. COURTESY: Susan Long, Tule Basin Land & Water Conservation Trust

The trust’s board of directors has three landowners as well as representatives from disadvantaged communities and conservation groups. The trust is primarily funded through state and federal grants with some private-sector grants, as well as payment for service contracts, Long explained.

Strategic outlook

Aside from its own programs, the trust is also administering a portion of $10 million from the state Department of Conservation Multibenefit Land Repurposing that was awarded to Pixley GSA. 

The trust is tasked with distributing $1.7 million of that $10 million. The state land repurposing program pays farmers to switch land from farming to less water intensive uses, such as wildlife habitat, recreational open space or recharge basins. 

Retiring random pieces of land, though, could create other problems – dust, invasive weeds and pests, even attracting illegal drug or other activity. 

Instead, the trust is taking a strategic approach to fallowed lands by linking them to existing wildlife habitat.

That takes a lot of communication with landowners and an in-depth understanding of the region.

To that end, the trust held a workshop in November in Tipton for growers interested in participating in the state land repurposing program and several more are planned in 2024. Seven out of ten applications for the 2024 Land Fallowing and Cover Crop program were funded, enrolling 1,190 acres for fallowing and saving 2,380 acre-feet of groundwater. 

And that’s just the start.

With the addition of three new staff members in the past year — Long as executive director, Emmily Lopez as watershed coordinator and Roxanne Reitsma as  administrative assistant — Long said 2024 will be a workhorse year.

Lopez will develop the trust’s Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation program (SALC), another avenue for farmers to transition to sustainability and maintain value in their land with conservation easements, funded by the Department of Conservation, while simultaneously developing a watershed plan for the subbasin. 

Bridge to the future

Trust president and dairyman Frank Fernandes said expanding the trust’s properties is on the agenda, ideally linking current projects to adjacent parcels.  

“Our goal is to grow and build on what we already have,” Fernandes said. “We’re trying to spin this right. If we don’t do it right, it could fall flat. And that’s the cautiousness of this group. We’ve got to perform. We can’t accept failure in any of these programs.” 

Fernandes said while the transition to groundwater sustainability will be filled with uncertainty, the programs offered by the trust aim to offset that. Though the San Joaquin Valley will look quite different in the coming decades, he remains optimistic.

“God willing, hopefully you will still see crops growing here,” he said. “Ag will be very different, the state will look very different. But we should all be helping in bringing balance to the area. Sacrifices will have to be made. The trust helps bridge some of those misconceptions of the valley and the value of the Valley for farming.”

Lisa McEwen, SJV Water

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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