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Finding Common Ground on Drought, Water and Farmland Retirement

October 20, 2021 by Aaron

By Adam Livingston, SRT Director of Planning and Policy

SRT inspires love and lasting protection for important lands. But in the San Joaquin Valley, land
use is inseparable from water use, and many of the farmers and ranchers we work with are facing
unprecedented cutbacks in water deliveries due to the drought. This comes at the same time that
decades of groundwater overpumping, and the resulting Sustainable Groundwater Management
Act (SGMA), are forcing water agencies, growers and cities alike to rethink how we steward our
limited water supplies.

Bringing water use within sustainable bounds will not only change land use, but also impact the
livelihoods of farmers, farmworkers and others who depend on our region’s natural and working
lands. A 2019 study from the Public Policy Institute of California predicted that over the next
two decades, water scarcity and SGMA implementation could result in the conversion of
500,000 acres of irrigated cropland in the San Joaquin Valley to less water-intensive uses; some
recent estimates are even higher.

SRT believes it is important to ensure that any farmland retirement that cannot be avoided is
carried out in a way that benefits the region’s environment, economy and public health, and
helps meet the needs of those whose livelihoods depend on the land. We have long been
involved in water policy, from participating in Groundwater Sustainability Agencies in a
stakeholder or advisory capacity to working with partners in the San Joaquin Valley Water
Collaborative Action Program. In these and other contexts, we are building support for a
collaborative approach to farmland retirement that offers the potential for landscape-scale
conservation and restoration, with benefits ranging from habitat connectivity, groundwater
recharge and carbon sequestration to improved air quality and opportunities for outdoor
recreation. But to make it work, we must be able to offer landowners the financial incentives
and flexibility they need to participate.

The recently-passed state budget may give a boost to this effort, as it includes a $50 million
appropriation for the California Department of Conservation (DOC) to provide incentives for
repurposing agricultural land. While this is a small downpayment on what will ultimately be
needed, it is a welcome start, and SRT will closely follow the development of the new DOC

More broadly, SRT will continue to work with farmers and ranchers, water agencies and climate
experts, and a wide range of other partners to address our region’s water crisis. The San Joaquin
Valley’s troubles with groundwater overpumping, subsidence and water scarcity are the result of
choices made over multiple decades, and the most effective approaches for dealing with them are
unlikely to be quick fixes. But if we are able to find common ground—literal and figurative—in
this difficult time, we can develop greater resilience to water, fire and climate challenges, and
leave future generations a restored landscape that serves nature and people alike.

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