Upcoming workshops to gather public input on the new program
At the September meeting of the California Water Commission, Kealiʻi Bright, Assistant Director of the Division of Land Resource Protection at the California Department of Conservation (or DOC), gave a presentation on a new program being spun up to repurpose farmland being retired due to SGMA implementation.
Mr. Bright began by acknowledging that the Department of Conservation being at a Water Commission might be unusual because they are not a groundwater agency or any kind of water agency, but they are an agency with a suite of programs that invest in natural and working lands’ land use, they support conservation organizations that do work within natural and working lands, and they have different programs that fund permanent conservation in those lands.
“So while we aren’t a water agency with water expertise, what we do have is a pretty a pretty vast and strong network of conservation partners throughout the state,” he said. “We are really excited to help DWR, the Water Board, and all of you implement what is a little bit further beyond the horizon of groundwater sustainability efforts.”
Once one focuses beyond the groundwater resource, how does achieving sustainable groundwater management impact the regions, the communities in those regions, the economic activity, and all the other components that really become more land use issues than water issues?
“It’s not the responsibility of DWR to solve all of these issues going forward, so we’re happy to help,” he said.
Mr. Bright noted that not all parts of the state will experience the same challenges, but as groundwater management is implemented, a reduction in food and fiber production is expected, with jobs impacted by those realities and local economic production resulting in lost tax revenue.
“These are really important social impacts that regions are going to face,” he said. “They’re important both for the health and safety of the community, but they’re really important for just the functionality of the counties, of the cities, and the communities within it.”
Other impacts to consider are air quality from fallowed land and decreased irrigation, because decreased green vegetation on the land usually means more dust; it also means increased heat and heat island effect in the cities beyond these agricultural areas. There is also habitat loss from fields and crops that are no longer being produced.
“As all of the different impacts stack up and impact those communities and the people around them that have built their fabric of life around them, it impacts their overall social well-being,” he said. “Those might seem like existential, seemingly impossible questions that we are trying to answer, but fortunately, there are a lot of strengths to lean on and take advantage of.”
Support locals and regions to prepare for changes. California has well-organized local agencies and stakeholders, and there is much expertise at the local level the DOC is planning to rely on. “The first thing we plan to do is support locals and regions to prepare for these changes,” said Mr. Bright. “This is a statewide issue, and consistent with SGMA, we want the solutions to come from the regions and directed by the regions to the challenges that they see as most important. So we want the governance structures that are in place now to help build this, and we want to build on those and bring in broader community outreach to guide those strategies.”
Support farmers and ranchers. “We want farmers and ranchers to be at the center of these land-use solutions to reduce groundwater demand and to use these lands to minimize harm, but also to use them for potential opportunities in the future for things like different types of crops or growing habitat or what be it,” he said.
Minimize harm from land fallowing. Mr. Bright pointed out that the Department of Conservation practices land fallowing across the state, and there are ways to do it that can minimize harm. “But we really want to push the envelope with the landowners to see if there are other options for those lands that can keep them in agriculture while reducing those impacts from end to end.”
Advance opportunities to achieve other benefits. “We want to try to be innovative. We have an opportunity right now to achieve other benefits, like greatly expanded habitat or other types of economic development benefits in these lands that we want to push for.”
Mr. Bright said the other strength they have is the impressive local presence right now in these basins. “Enormous compliments go to the Department of Water Resources and all the groundwork that they have done in those communities and with those water agencies around the SGMA plans. That groundwork is proving extremely self-evident as a high-value resource for us when we go through implementation in different policy areas.”
How the Department will help multi-disciplinary partners lead
Mr. Bright noted that there are economic development and workforce components active through Go Biz and workforce investment boards, as well as an extensive network of support for agricultural programs through the Department of Food and Ag and the Department of Conservation’s programs that can help in the effort.
The Department plans to bring together a multi-disciplinary team to meet locals where they are with the challenges they face and try to find ways to partner with them. They will also find the high fiscal capacity entities in the regions that can lead land repurposing strategies and support local government.
“For us, the local government connection is essential because we need to understand how the impacts to tax revenue and local services are going to play out because that is the driver of land-use change and how the whole system at that level functions,” he said. “So supporting local governments is going to be critical and a growing segment of the strategy.”
It will involve syncing together multi-disciplinary plans and strategies that are led at the local level to achieve multiple benefits and line up different funding sources and different avenues of support for the land, region, and landowner.
“It involves thinking about it in terms of understanding, in a broad sense, what the landscape is going to look like, understanding where there will be central changes in land use, and then trying to help source resources, both technical assistance, and funding for programs, down to the local level to help them shift land use in a way that grabs those multiple benefits. In the end, we want this to be continuously landowner and community-centered. We want this to be driven at the local level.”
The Department of Conservation will bring together other agency partners, including the Department of Water Resources, California Department of Food and Agriculture, Governor’s Office of Business Development, Department of Fish and Wildlife, Wildlife Conservation Board, the National Resource Conservation Service agencies, and others.
New Program: Multi-Benefit Land Repurposing Program
The recent 2021 Budget Act provided a $50 million appropriation to fund the Multi-Benefit Land Repurposing Program. The funding will be used to provide resources to regions that have submitted groundwater management plans to help them plan for land use changes, help farmers and ranchers stay with the land, and provide solutions.
The word ‘repurpose’ is a term for the natural resource bureaucracy. When the Department of Conservation thinks about repurposing lands, it’s in the short-term, medium-term, and long-term for different benefits and steering towards something else that can benefit all.
“It’s important to think about it both short and long term,” said Mr. Bright. “You can envision a program that has payments to farmers for growing habitat for five to ten years. You can also envision a program that has a farmer who decides to do a permanent land or habitat conservation project or a farmer that is thinking about devoting their land to groundwater recharge. We help organize the strategy to help them do that financially.”
The last component of this program is drought response and using these funds and efforts to orchestrate a more systematic drought response at the local level. It could involve understanding how to reduce harvesting in a region over a long time and partnering that with NRCS programs to draw down demand on the groundwater basin in the local area, or partnering with other programs that tie land use to water demand reduction for short and medium-term drought response. Mr. Bright acknowledged that there really aren’t any short-term drought response options now.
It’s critical that this program be regionally led and a flexible resource that locals can use. The program is being modeled after other Department of Conservation programs on forest health and forest resilience which utilize block grants.
“In the forest and fires [programs], we pass money to the regions, and then we rely on them to build capacity across their networks and develop strategies and get projects lined up for bigger agencies like CalFire to fund,” said Mr. Bright. “What it is is a transfer of power from the state to these regions, and then the regions really own those strategies and build the networks to achieve them. We want broad networks of partners, and we want those networks to be expanded beyond the SGMA networks that have been put in place. We want the communities that will be impacted to be part of these strategy developments. And we also want the local governments responsible for those networks and for those communities to be there, as well.”
The program will provide opportunities for paying landowners, farmers, and ranchers to deliver these services and have a real emphasis on capacity and technical assistance.
“It’s essential that we have resources available to build up the organizations that we’re partnering with to not only deliver projects, but also get those projects permitted, and to spend time with the landowners, have the technical assistance for those landowners … figure out how to do all the business services needed to actually deliver conservation work on the ground. That baseline capacity is essential if you’re going to get to doing more technical and policy-driven work.”
Alignment with other programs
The Multi-benefit Land Repurposing Program will align well with the programs at the Department of Conservation. For example, the Department maps the state’s farmland for land use purposes, including parcel-specific mapping and tracking which parcels fall under the different ag land categories, such as prime, nonprime, or grazing.
The Department of Conservation is the state manager of the Williamson Act program. “The transition of land that may occur under sustainable groundwater management strategies is going to have a huge interaction with the Williamson Act because all those parcels are within the Williamson Act, so we will have to lean on our Williamson Act expertise to help guide those transitions,” said Mr. Bight.
The Department has a SGMA Watershed Coordinator Program launched last year, which has been helping partners around the state think in a multi-disciplinary way about how to plan for groundwater sustainability and how to bring in other types of benefits. The Sustainable Ag Land Conservation Program, funded through the Strategic Growth Council, is one of the state’s largest funding sources for land use planning and land conservation around agriculture.
The Department of Conservation is based on geologic expertise, so they hope to leverage that expertise to support the partners at DWR and other agencies.
The Department of Conservation will also focus on working together with state and federal programs on water, healthy soils, biodiversity, climate, and economic development programs to provide a portfolio of resources to the regions.
Closing thought …
Mr. Bright concluded his presentation by noting that major changes in agriculture have always driven major changes in land use throughout California’s history.
“The question right now is, how will groundwater sustainability and our push for groundwater sustainability be seen as one of the major markers in California land-use history. Is it going to be something that we foresaw? We have the data in front of us; we can foresee where the system will be stressed and where populations might be affected. Is this going to be one of those things where we can help shape the land-use impacts from that shock to the agricultural system? Or will we be in a reactive mode, like we have been in other situations where we just see parcel by parcel land-use decisions?
“To me, it feels like we’re at one of those points in time where we really have our hands on the levers of what will be one of the most historic land-use change moments in our history. It’s exciting, and it’s great to have such amazing partners at our side.”
QUESTION: Commissioner Kimberly Gallagher noted that Mr. Bright had mentioned the NRCS as one of the partnering agencies. Have you also met with Resource Conservation Districts (or RCDs)?
“Absolutely,” said Mr. Bright. “RCDs have basically been the driver of our regional forest fire capacity program as well. And we will lean on them heavily as special districts at the local level that can help with a governance structure that can mobilize resources and be that conduit for state and federal agencies to work.”
QUESTION: Commissioner Arthur asked if Mr. Bright had any thoughts about how this would connect to groundwater allocations and the Commission’s work on the Water Resilience Portfolio, as land repurposing connects to that. Also, how water is moved and traded connects to land repurposing and groundwater recharge. What are your reflections on those connections?
“I can’t speak to trading and the details of trading, but what I can say is the program will be set up in a way that those that are involved in trading can shape a land purchasing strategy or land use strategy tied to their groundwater sustainability,” said Mr. Bright. “That reflects on what they anticipate will come from their trading conversation. So, we aren’t going to get into the middle of trying to understand how all of the dynamics are going to play out; we’re going to lean on those that are closest to it and use our resources to shape their strategies to reflect what they think is most important for their [region].”
“One other aspect of the trading that aligns with this is at it the county level and the local government level,” Mr. Bright continued. “Water trading equates to economic activity leaving those counties, so you’re going to start to see that land-use question line up with the tax revenues and economic questions. How do you set up a trading program that meets the needs of the people and the landowners, but then how did the local governments engage with that land use? I think that’s what it starts to all fall together in this potentially messy or elegantly choreographed way.”
Upcoming workshops to collect public input on the new program
The Department of Conservation will hold two workshops to hear what stakeholders would like to see in their upcoming Multi-benefit Land Repurposing Program. These workshops are designed to give stakeholders the opportunity to provide input into the Department of Conservation’s proposed Multi-benefit Land Repurposing Program before program guidelines are developed.
Everyone is encouraged to attend all or a portion of a workshop, as time allows. A brief overview of proposed program components will be provided at the top of each hour during each workshop, with the remainder of the time available for discussion and questions.