CA WATER COMMISSION: The Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program: Envisioning the social, economic, and environmental possibilities of fallowed lands

At the January meeting of the California Water Commission, Keali’i Bright, Assistant Director of the Department of Conservation’s Division of Land Resources, gave a presentation on the Department’s Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program.

Mr. Bright began by acknowledging that the Department of Conservation is not an expert on water or habitat, but the Department does have a long history of supporting practitioners and entities working within watersheds.

“We support them to develop strategies to address the bigger landscape challenges that they’re facing, from the top of the watershed down to the groundwater basins on the valley floor,” he said.  “And with the drought and with groundwater levels being depleted, we’re really facing this moment where we’re going to exacerbate all of the pressures on our landowners, agricultural leaders, communities, and people who rely on these sources.”

The Department works to protect the state’s most valuable farmland, a finite resource.  Quality farmland is tied to both soil quality and water, and when water availability decreases, there will be less quality farmland to produce the world’s foods and fibers.  The PPIC has estimated that as much as a million acres will need to be fallowed to bring groundwater basins into balance.

So land use is going to become incredibly important, Mr. Bright said.  If left up to the traditional forces that drive land use decision-making at the parcel level,  agricultural lands will become scattered across the state.  In the past, transitions have often led to the urbanization of the most valuable agricultural lands.

“So we are trying to institute attention towards intentional planning for the lands facing this fallowing crisis,” he said.  “We’re trying to take advantage of opportunities to maximize the beneficial uses of these lands to minimize the harm to public health, habitat, agriculture viability –  all the things that result from chaotic land use decision-making following a reduction in resources like we’re seeing now.”

The legislature established the Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program to help regions to repurpose agricultural land to reduce reliance on groundwater while providing community health, economic well-being, water supply, habitat, renewable energy, and climate benefits​.  The premise of the program is that regional and local entities are best suited to lead the multi-pronged strategies to address these challenges.

The land repurposing program is similar to the Department’s Regional Forest Fire Capacity Program, the central organizing program for the state’s fire resilience strategy.  The fire capacity program is developing a network of regional entities across the state that put together plans, projects, and strategies to address wildfire and forest health risks.

The Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program is working to empower regions to repurpose lands to deliver multiple benefits, such as sustaining ag economies, habitat, public space, groundwater recharge, drinking water protection, air pollution abatement, and economic development.

“First and foremost, we want to sustain agricultural economies where we can,” said Mr. Bright.  “There’s a lot of confusion when we talk about fallowing and impacts from drought.  They think our programs are trying to fallow land and push agriculture out of places.  We are looking for opportunities to sustain agricultural economies where they are because there are so many communities and so much that is tied to them.”

“However, we understand that there’s going to be significant impacts from reduced water,” he continued.  “So we’re trying to look at those impacts and think about the most strategic places to do things like build habitat, build public space, minimize air pollution harm, and also think about ways to spur economic development to make up some of those economic losses from the loss of traditional groundwater irrigation.  A lot of this starts to look at bigger land use, economic development planning, and land use planning.”

Program overview

Critically overdrafted basins and those high- and medium-priority overdrafted groundwater basins under emergency drought orders are eligible for the program.  However, Mr. Bright said that next year, the program might have to be tailored back a bit.

The goals of the program are:

  • To support coordinated regional efforts
  • Provide short-and medium-term drought relief
  • Repurpose agricultural lands
  • Sustain land-based economies
  • Reduce groundwater use
  • Create/restore habitat
  • Provide benefits to disadvantaged communities
  • Foster partnerships and collaboration

The Department is working with other agencies, such as the Department of Water Resources and Fish and Wildlife, to help develop programs to meet these goals.

“We’re trying to bring together a lot of different agencies so that we can put money on the table, so local agencies are in a great position to start applying for other funding sources out there,” he said.

Regional block grants

The program gives regional block grants to GSA-led regional collaborations.  The regional organizations in the program must be inclusive, have a strong and diverse membership, and have aggressive outreach strategies.  The first round of grants was awarded last year, and the Department is currently soliciting for the second round.

“I deliberately left the big numbers off the slide because what’s more important here is not thinking about how much has been awarded, but about how much of the state is starting to be covered by these empowered regional entities,” said Mr. Bright.  “Because in the end, the amount of money we put on the table for this program is really not the point.  We’re setting these regions up to leverage different funding sources to move much bigger programs.”

Four grants were awarded to regional entities in the first round, and another four are expected to be awarded this year.  There’s currently $20 million in the proposed budget, and if there is no further funding, ten regional entities would be operating in the state.

Mr. Bright noted that with natural resources, the state doesn’t always invest in funding the development of the strategies and projects to get them shovel-ready, although the state does in other infrastructure programs, such as transportation.

“Somehow, in natural resources, we’ve kind of come under this idea that you can just put money on projects, and everything else will magically show up,” he said.  “That works fine when designing an opportunistic system where the high-capacity groups will always win.  But when trying to address problems permeating every part of the state, you can’t just put money on the project and expect you’ll achieve statewide benefits on the backside.”

The deliverables in the program are:

  • Multibenefit Agricultural Land Repurposing Plan: Grantees are required to develop a multibenefit agricultural land repurposing plan, a strategic plan for how they want to utilize their landscape to achieve the different benefits that they identify as most important.
  • Land repurposing project development, permitting, and implementation: The program directly funds project development and permits to get projects shovel-ready, so they’re implementable when funding opportunities arise.
  • Funding provided to support the capacity needs of partners
  • Outreach, education, and training
  • Monitoring

Types of projects funded by the program include habitat, multibenefit recharge areas, transitioning to dryland farming or rangeland or less water-intensive crops, planting cover crops, reestablishment of tribal land uses, facilitation of renewable energy projects, creation of parks or community recreation areas, incentive payments to landowners, farmers, and ranchers to implement multibenefit projects, land acquisitions, and pumping allocation acquisitions.

The first solicitation was for $40 million; they received $113 million in applications.  On the map, areas not shaded blue were covered by an application.

“So right out of the door, you start to see the most impacted areas stepping up with really competitive plans to try to access this foundational money for their bigger programs,” he said.  “In the end, we funded four projects: the Pixley Irrigation District, the Kaweah Water Conservation District,  Madera basin, and the upper Salinas basin.”

Round 1 grantees

Pixley Irrigation District

Mr. Bright noted that some applicants had taken advantage of other programs to build strategies and capacities and came well-prepared for this program.

One example is the Tule Subbasin; they had received funding for a watershed coordinator grant a few years ago; they built on that application and then came in with a really strong approach that identified their priorities.

“There is a strong focus on habitat and groundwater recharge as the foundation for thinking about optimizing the use of the landscape of landowners in the area,” he said.

Madera County

Madera County leveraged other ag land conservation programs run by the Department of Conservation.  They are looking into understanding how each parcel of land can be best utilized for agriculture, habitat, housing, or solar.

“All a county has is land; that’s how they build their tax base,” said Mr. Bright.  “They need to think about how to utilize that land best to support the county’s services.  So this is coming in with a much more county-level view.  It’s been nice to see them building a series of work from different types of planning grants that we’ve been able to develop.  And I think what’s going to be great about this one is they’re going to develop kind of new mechanisms for funding, giving farmers or landowners money to do different types of fallowing programs or different types of habitat work.  Madera is also trying to concentrate their investments in ways that can help disadvantaged communities.”

Kaweah Subbasin

The Kaweah Subbasin is a high-capacity organization, but it had not done the groundwork to develop its approach.

“We felt like they could run a strong program because they had a vision,” he said.  “But they also had a detailed approach to how they would engage in outreach and development of their plan.  So we aren’t just picking people who come to us with everything baked and ready to go.  We’re also trying to pick people who we have trust that they’re going to be able to get there and they have the plan to get to an equitable strategy for dealing with these issues.  And they had a nice, strong partnership on both the ag and conservation side as well.”

Upper Salinas Valley

One of the priorities of the Upper Salinas Valley is to manage flood flows in a way that can help recharge their groundwater, such as Flood MAR and other projects.  Much of the program is land conservation and figuring out where floodwaters can go to refill the aquifer.

Statewide support entity

The program includes a ‘Statewide Support Entity‘ that coordinates technical assistance and outreach for the program.  This role is currently served by Self-Help Enterprises and Environmental Defense Fund.

“We have a strong statewide support entity leading the development and helping our groups develop their strategies,” said Mr. Bright.  “This is all brand new.  We are making this up as we go.  We’ve never seen these types of impacts or issues converge all at once.  So there will be a lot of learning, and the statewide support entity will help facilitate that learning.  Then they will flip that into peer-to-peer learning opportunities for other areas of the state that can take our lessons learned both organizationally and substance-wise to do this.”

Carve-out for tribes

Mr. Bright noted that the program has an explicit carve-out for tribes.  “One thing we’ve learned across all of our programs is that you really can’t just lump a priority or a set aside within a regular grant program and then put it all on the same timeline and then expect to have tribal participation.  So we did a rolling non-competitive $5 million carve out for tribes.  We had one tribe in Sonoma County come to us to look at helping with their groundwater basin.  So I think having just a set aside, rather than a priority on a different timescale, for us as a department is the only realistic pathway to get meaningful tribal involvement in these programs.  And then, if we’re unable to spend this money, if there aren’t enough applications, we can roll it back into the program.”

Discussion highlights

Commissioner Jose Solorio, noting he was raised in the Central Valley, asked if the program is trying to lead efforts to get people out of farming?  Or help communities with economic development?

“We are not trying to push people out of farming necessarily,” said Keali’i Bright.  “We’re trying to lead people to use their lands in a way that uses less water and results in less harm to the socio-economic system and the public health.   We want to sustain the socio-economic foundations for those communities … we don’t want piecemealed fallowing to erode the ability of a region to produce agriculture.  So where we need to take lands out of production, ideally, we would want those to be the least viable lands.  And then, look for other opportunities to use them for things like habitat, public space, solar, new industrial development, or housing.  So it’s trying to put some money on the table for people to be strategic about how to best use their lands to serve the communities.”

Commissioner Makler noted that the California Air Resources Board released their 2045 goals, which called for increasing solar to 9000 megawatts, equivalent to 90 square miles.  How is that being incorporated into the program?

Mr. Bright reiterated that they won’t be making those decisions as the power in this program is delegated to the regions to develop their plan.  “We’re working closely with the Energy Commission on their planning efforts to connect the different work happening at TNC, Energy Commission, and others to identify where are the opportunities for solar in each of these areas and how that aligns with the regional priorities.  “We don’t want to see solar multiplying across the landscape when that place really wants to maintain its agriculture, so we’re not in a role as the Department of Conservation to say yes or no to either.  Instead, we want to facilitate where that solar fits best within the larger area.”

Commissioner Kimberly Gallagher also expressed uneasiness that the program is reducing agricultural lands.  What about the disadvantaged communities that are dependent on agriculture?  Is there going to be the ability for these communities to become self-sustaining once the grants are gone?

Mr. Bight acknowledged that reaching groundwater sustainability will impact these communities, so the program is trying to minimize the harm that would happen otherwise.  “Groundwater sustainability has rippling effects across a landscape and a community, so how do we get ahead of those impacts and manage what we have in the best way to provide for the people and the resources.”

“I think we’ll see great opportunities to do fallowing to achieve benefits like pulling pressure off of the lands around community wells so that you’re not seeing the kind of continued degradation of those resources.  We’re helping people bring together the resources needed for complex recharge or Flood MAR-type programs.  There are important habitat projects where you don’t have the highest quality land, and you’ve got willing landowners, so it’s a really good opportunity for habitat, recharge type project that can take pressure off the more vital agricultural lands that support local economies.”

“It’s not all rosy; these aren’t positive answers to anything.  We’re trying to minimize the harm that we believe would happen.  These are all voluntary programs; we are not pushing any of these outcomes on people.”

Department of Conservation Accepting Applications for Round 2 of the Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program

Applications for $40 million in Round 2 grants from the Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program can be submitted now through March 29.

The guidelines for the program have been modified; key adjustments include adding disadvantaged community benefits as its own selection criterion, as well as clarifying project eligibility, the application review process, project monitoring expectations, and eligible costs.

Round 2 Land Repurposing Program Guidelines_FINAL_combined

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