In summary

California farmland can be put to work in ways that build climate resilience and benefit people and wildlife.

By Karen Ross

Karen Ross is secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, secretary.ross@cdfa.ca.gov.

David Shabazian, Special to CalMatters

David Shabazian is director of the California Department of Conservation, David.Shabazian@conservation.ca.gov.

While California is known for its world-famous entertainment industry and ever-transforming tech sector, agriculture is the often-overlooked backbone of our diverse state and one of its earliest economic engines. 

Our state’s multigenerational farmers and ranchers not only feed Californians, but also supply one-third of our country’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts, while also leading the nation in milk production.

Yet as other parts of our economy spring back to post-pandemic life, farmers and ranchers are facing major water shortages in the second straight year of drought — the new norm in a changing climate. Some farmers already are making difficult choices about which crops to grow and are even tearing out orchards.

Thanks to an enormous budget surplus, however, California is uniquely poised to help the agricultural sector adapt to increasingly scarce water supplies while also benefiting rural communities and wildlife — if our state leaders take action.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s budget proposal includes a bold $5.1 billion investment in drought response and water resilience. Of that, $500 million is proposed to help farmers repurpose fields to more water-efficient uses that deliver new benefits, such as open space for rural communities, recharge basins to store water, habitat corridors for wildlife and lands to store carbon.

While $500 million may sound like a lot, it’s just the start of what’s truly needed to address the scope of the challenge facing the state, particularly the Central Valley.

During the last drought, state leaders passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act to address decades of unregulated groundwater pumping, which caused land to sink, infrastructure to crumble and drinking water and irrigation wells to go dry. The law requires regions to balance groundwater supply and demand within 20 years, and ensure there is enough water to sustain agriculture and communities into the future. 

Unfortunately, bringing groundwater use into balance could mean decreasing the agricultural footprint of California’s Central Valley by 500,000 to 750,000 acres — the size of Yosemite National Park and 10% to 15% of total farm acreage. During this transition, it is absolutely crucial that local communities and landowners have funding to work collaboratively and determine how best to manage these lands. 

Without strategic planning, these lands could become a haphazard patchwork of dusty fields infested with weeds and pests, affecting remaining agricultural lands and further impairing air quality. However, with all hands on deck working together, we have an opportunity to help farmers voluntarily repurpose these fields into new positive uses.

The Central Valley has seen more than 90% of its wetlands disappear — a significant loss of habitat critically important for migratory birds and other wildlife. Restoring all of these wetlands won’t be possible, but $500 million will go a long way toward creating recharge ponds that can help capture and store water underground while providing wetland habitat. 

In addition, this funding can help develop scrubland habitat for endangered wildlife like the San Joaquin kit fox, pollinator habitat and forage that are vital to the production of healthy crops, and much-needed outdoor recreational spaces for rural communities. The funding can also help farmers transition to pastureland and lower water-intensive crops. 

The history of California agriculture is one of evolution in crops, adjustment to changing markets and innovation in farming practices to minimize environmental impacts. Just as other major industries in California have evolved as conditions change, the state’s agricultural sector must adapt to increasingly scarce water supplies. The $500 million proposed by the governor would create a new grant program to incentivize farmers to put their lands to work in ways that use less water and benefit California. Earlier this month, the Assembly unanimously passed Assembly Bill 252 to create the program.

Let’s take action and help the farmers and ranchers who put food on our plates through this difficult transition. By urging legislators to support Newsom’s $500 million for land repurposing, we can ensure California’s agricultural economy continues to thrive while transforming the Central Valley into a more resilient place for people and nature.  

______

Karen Ross also has written about protecting California’s rangeland.

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact CalMatters with any commentary questions: commentary@calmatters.org .