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Powers departs SRT, reflects on shifts during stewardship director tenure

November 17, 2022 by Aaron

SRT Stewardship Director Jeff Powers is departing the Visalia-based conservation organization effective January 1, 2023 following his four-plus year tenure and his move to cooler and wetter climes of far Northern California, where he and his wife Diana relocated earlier in 2022. 

“I lived on the Central Coast for almost 20 years and now have an opportunity to live on the North Coast to be near my daughter. I have always enjoyed living near the ocean, and the numerous protected beaches and parks in the area are a big plus. That–plus the vast redwood forests–are simply wonderful for hiking and exploring. Professionally I have a few consulting assignments lined up and will be exploring other opportunities to continue my work in the natural resource conservation field,” Powers told Currents.

His upcoming transition offers an opportunity to take stock of the numerous shifts and accomplishments that have occurred during his tenure with SRT which began in 2018. 

Over that time Powers’ role as Director of Stewardship expanded from managing the preserves, conservation easements, and database management systems to include SGMA, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, and SGMA-related work. “When I first arrived here over four years ago, SGMA implementation was just beginning with local farm agencies–the Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) just drafting the plans to manage groundwater. With the latest drought and rapid depletion of the groundwater, the GSAs have been forced to accelerate their plans to limit groundwater extraction,” he said. SRT has been working closely with the GSAs to help them through this difficult process, and SRT, “with its long experience working with landowners and farmers in the SJV can potentially assist farmers with these difficult choices and implement some permanent land protections measures that can provide some economic relief to the farmers having to deal with these incredibly difficult choices because of groundwater pumping limitations,” he said.

The accomplishments of which Powers is most proud of during his time with SRT include the Kaweah Oaks Preserve’s Forest Management Planning and restoration projects. “The Kaweah Oaks Preserve forest management planning and restoration projects following the previous drought offered a big lift,” Powers said. “We worked with a local logging company to remove the tremendous amount of trees that perished during the drought, then obtained two USFWS grants to implement ongoing restoration efforts in those areas where trees were removed,” he added.

Powers also established consistent funding from the USFWS Partners for Wildlife Program and Southern California Edison grant funding at multiple SRT lands from Kaweah Oaks Preserve and the Carrizo Plain to Blue Oak Ranch and Dry Creek Preserve. “This will hopefully be consistent funding for SRT preserves long after I have left,” Powers said. Under his guidance SRT was also able to obtain private funding to upgrade the infrastructure at Kaweah Oaks and Blue Oak Ranch preserves to enhance the visitor and school program experiences at those properties. 

SRT’s ag easement monitoring approach improved under his tenure as well. “I am very proud of the tremendous improvements to the Conservation Easement Monitoring Program together with our much-improved GIS and Database Management systems.” Additionally, SRT was without a comprehensive Conservation Plan during its 20-year history, he points out, saying “I’m very happy to say I’ve led the completion of SRT’s Conservation Focus Areas planning effort which prioritizes the broad areas that SRT has been protecting and will be interested in protecting in the future. This provides a clear framework to focus SRT's land protection and move it forward for years to come.”

Powers considers another high point to be his leadership team work in formation of the Tulare Basin Watershed Partnership Network. “This Network is looking to connect the myriad of stakeholders in entire river watersheds to work together on water resilience projects and activities. SRT has taken a leadership role in the ongoing work of the Network moving forward which is very exciting to see,” Powers said.

He served on the Steering Committee for the recently approved Kaweah Regional Conservation Investment Strategy (RCIS) Plan. This Plan will offer farmers potential one-time income sources for land they may no longer be farming. This completely voluntary program, coupled with the new Multi-benefit Land Repurposing Program grants, may offer farmers alternative income if they choose to take farmland out of production, due, for example, to groundwater issues.

Lastly, Powers served on the Technical Advisory Committee for the Tule Subbasin Multi-benefit Land Repurposing block grant, as well as the Kaweah Subbasin block grant. Each basin received $10 million from this fledgling CA Department of Conservation program to explore how to use land that may no longer be available for farming due to groundwater pumping restrictions through SGMA implementation. The first step will be to develop plans that would prioritize projects to assist with groundwater sustainability, improve disadvantaged communities drinking water issues, increase native habitat through restoration, and allow for additional public recreational activities. Given the huge estimates of farmland that may go out of production in the next 15+ years, this is the first attempt by the State to have local agencies and organizations determine how these lands might be used for the benefit of the San Joaquin Valley communities that are going to be affected by the fallowing of farmland.

As for SGMA’s prospects for success following his direct involvement, Powers said that “SGMA in and of itself is not a way for the San Joaquin Valley to comprehensively address all the problems that result from implementing sustainable groundwater pumping measures. SGMA is a locally-driven process to have overall groundwater pumping be sustainable for all residents of the Valley,” adding that “The significant impacts from doing that will need to be addressed by everyone since everyone will be impacted in one way or another. The RCIS program–coupled with new Multi-benefit Land Repurposing Program–are the first attempt by the State to start to alleviate some of those impacts. Both of these initiatives are funded and managed by the State but they are locally driven - that's the very important key. The State of California may provide economic relief through these types of programs but they will have to be developed, organized and implemented by local Valley communities to be most effective. I am hopeful that Valley citizens can come together to come up with solutions to alleviate the effects of SGMA implementation. It's a long road ahead but I do have faith that the communities will be able develop effective ways to deal with the impacts,” Powers said.

What might be his legacy, once he departs? “It’s tough to say what my ‘lasting legacy’ will be with SRT given that four-and-a-half years is relatively not a tremendous amount of time. But I think some of the highlights I’ve mentioned will have a lasting, positive impact for the lands that SRT has already protected, and improve its effectiveness in protecting land in the future,” Powers said.

“I have been working with national and regional land trusts for over 30 years, so I have lots of experience with every aspect of land trust work–both good and bad. And during these years I have been privileged to work with many wonderful staff people in a variety of capacities. The most enjoyable part of working at SRT, besides the excellent conservation work that is accomplished, is the high-quality staff here. During my time with SRT I have always been, and continue to be, impressed by the passion and intelligence of all staff throughout the organization. In addition, beyond that is the teamwork, with everyone working towards the overall goals of the organization and trying to keep that in mind on a daily basis. Working with this dedicated, diverse team of conservation professionals has been the best part of my time here at SRT,” Powers said.

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