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Farmers and Environmentalists: Old Enemies Conserving Water Together

Environmental Defense Fund is launching a new Western water strategy that aims to solve the problems of groundwater depletion and habitat restoration by working jointly with farmers.

Written by Matt Weiser Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
Edf field
Environmental Defense Fund staff and other conservation collaborators at a visit to Elliott Ranch near West Sacramento. EDF helped obtain a state grant so the farmer can pay for habitat restoration work to aid Swainson’s hawk, a state threatened species. Courtesy of EDF

Farmers and environmentalists have often been at odds. Farmers, for instance, rarely want it known that their land might host an endangered species, for fear regulations could come crashing down. Environmentalists are fond of regulations to protect natural resources, but rarely do much to help farmers comply.

These old patterns are beginning to change as the two camps find they have more in common than stereotypes suggest. One group working along this path is Environmental Defense Fund, which is developing a new Western water strategy aimed at helping farmers cope with scarcity.

The new policy, still being developed, aims to help farmers and irrigation districts comply with California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). EDF also plans to help create water markets, so farmers can sell or trade water when they have a surplus, rather than letting it go to waste.

To get a preview of the new strategy and how it can help both wildlife and farm economies, Water Deeply recently spoke with three EDF staffers: David Festa, senior vice president, ecosystems; Maurice Hall, associate vice president, ecosystems and water; and Ann Hayden, senior director, California habitat and Western water.

Participants in an inaugural leadership academy, offered by EDF and several partners, which trained managers of small water agencies in the San Joaquin Valley on the ins and outs of California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and other matters. (Kike Arnal, Courtesy of EDF)

Water Deeply: Can you summarize what the new strategy is about?

David Festa: We’re pulling on four specific threads. First is to make agriculture part of the solution. They own something on the order of 80 percent of the water rights and much of the habitat we’re going to need.

Second is to empower local leaders, particularly among disadvantaged communities. That’s important because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s critical to building the political momentum we need to sustain these efforts.

Third is to close the “escape hatch,” or the use of groundwater as a backup for shortages in surface water supplies. We can’t solve unsustainable surface water management by continuing unsustainable groundwater management, so that means making sure things like the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act succeed.

Fourth is to improve the effectiveness and accountability of habitat improvements – everything from fish screens to mitigation banks. We want habitat improvement to be happening faster, be more cost-effective and get the recognition it deserves.

Water Deeply: What region are you focusing on, exactly?

Maurice Hall: Generally, we think of our problem set as the areas where irrigated agriculture is the prominent water use. That tends to correspond to the area where we have the biggest stresses on water and water scarcity issues.

Right now, there are two really big opportunities to insert new solutions. One is California, and in large part the opportunity we have now is due to passage of SGMA. Because of the stresses that is going to add to an already stressed system, it will cause us to have do a lot of things differently.

The second big opportunity is in the Colorado River Basin, especially in the Lower Colorado region. There are clear signs of imbalance on Lake Mead, the big storage reservoir that the Lower Basin states depend on.

Water Deeply: You’re developing an open-source toolkit to help people comply with California’s SGMA and a series of workshops. That’s kind of unusual for an environmental group, isn’t it?

Ann Hayden: We recognized that the responsibility SGMA was going to put on local agencies to figure this out was going to be a huge burden. Our strategy is really to target those folks in the Central Valley who seem more willing and better positioned to get out ahead of the far-off deadlines in SGMA, and figure out ways they can be credited for doing those things.

Specifically, we’re thinking of ways we can help with groundwater recharge and developing a groundwater market. We’re focusing on where those opportunities lie.

We also recognized that in order for this to be a sustainable solution, we really need to figure out ways in which we can get disadvantaged communities to have a seat at the table, and equip them with tools and resources to engage in decision-making. We’re working with partners on the ground in the Central Valley to establish a Water Leadership Program.

Water Deeply: And you’re actually working on trying to incubate new water markets. How will that work?

Hall: Consider, right now, the agriculture water users who have water rights. Because of the way we’ve built our system and the social norms and policies we have established, they have few choices of how they can use their water. They can either grow their crops or not use their water. Because if you don’t use your water, you lose the water right. So there’s an incentive to use the water whether or not it’s really economically viable, or whether it’s really what you want to do most.

So the value of water markets, generally, is to give those who have the rights some flexibility in how they use water, so they can manage it as an asset, as opposed to just an input of their agricultural production. That opens up a lot of options. Maybe I’m growing a crop I’m barely making money on, and somebody downstream needs some water to supplement their almond orchard. And I can trade my water to them and use less on my land, and we’re both better off.

One of the problems is that if you do that without the right sideboards in place, you can have some undesirable impacts. For instance, you might reduce the recharge to groundwater in your local areas because you’re not irrigating your field. So building water-trading programs that include those externalities is what is necessary going forward, and why we see the importance of us being involved in making this happen.

Water Deeply: You sponsored a bill last year, AB 2304, to help launch water markets in the state. What’s the status of that bill, and what comes next?

Hayden: We started working with the Association of California Water Agencies, which is also coming out with its policy principles on what should and could happen to improve water markets. There was a lot of common ground. Unfortunately, there’s a whole spectrum of perspectives among its members. When it came down to it, it was too challenging to gain full support of ACWA at this point to make movement on legislation. That said, we are committed to working with ACWA on other possible policy improvements, maybe those that don’t require legislation at first.

Hall: There have been really bad examples of what ill-planned water trades can do. A dramatic example happened on the Front Range of Colorado, where pretty significant communities have been dried up through purchase of agricultural land and the water rights that go along with them – so-called “buy-and-dry” transitions that have been in the news for decades. So we recognize we have more education to do.

Water Deeply: You also want to incentivize farmers to idle land for environmental purposes. Is this a kind of land trust?

Festa: What we’d like to do is create the economic systems that will allow farmers and ranchers to look at the environment, essentially, as a crop. They can manage their lands in ways that produce a very specific environmental benefit and get paid to do it. The concept is a cousin to things like conservation easements and land banks, where land is taken out of production. But in a lot of those cases, not much, oftentimes, is actually done to manage it for a particular environmental outcome.

Hayden: In the groundwater context, it is one area where we may have a nice linkage with land restoration. We’re probably going to see more land that has to go idle in order for farmers to adjust to how water supply is going to change under SGMA. We want to get out ahead of that and help farmers design good habitat on their land – and have them be paid for that. There also could be opportunities for farmers to do on-farm groundwater recharge, and ways we can design those activities that are also beneficial to creating habitat.

Water Deeply: Any examples on the ground now?

Hayden: We have a number of pilot projects where we have been able to test our habitat quantification tool. It’s a tool to be able to measure a habitat function on a parcel of agricultural land. It allows you to plug in different practices a farmer could implement to improve that function for a suite of at-risk species.

The one site where we’re about to launch a restoration project is called Elliott Ranch in West Sacramento. We were able to get Proposition 1 funding from the Delta Conservancy to be able to compensate that landowner to make some changes in agricultural practices and direct deliberate restoration on the property. We’re about to start on the actual project and get shovels in the ground in the next couple of months. That’s a project that’s really focused on Swainson’s hawk.

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