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Video: State and Federal Experts Discuss San Joaquin Valley’s Water Future

Lori Pottinger April 8, 2019
photo - Aerial View of Farmland in California

How can state and federal agencies help California’s largest agricultural region address its difficult water management problems? This was the theme of an event last week that brought together PPIC experts with top officials working on issues related to water, agriculture, and natural resources.

Ellen Hanak, director of the PPIC Water Policy Center, launched the event by summarizing findings from a new report on the valley’s water- and land-management challenges and outlining some strategies for addressing them.

Groundwater overdraft is the valley’s key water challenge. A state mandate to bring groundwater use to sustainable levels will have broad effects on valley agriculture and the regional economy—most likely including some permanent idling of farmland to balance water budgets. Hanak noted that only about a quarter of the valley’s groundwater deficit can be filled with new supplies at prices farmers can afford.

According to Hanak, the most promising solutions fall into three buckets: “Ways to increase flexibility in how we manage water and related land resources; ways to provide incentives so that growers, who are some of the key decision makers on the ground, can do this so it makes business sense to them; and ways to stack benefits so you get more than one thing out of it—maybe you get groundwater recharge and wetland habitat, for example.”

The three panelists—Wade Crowfoot of the California Natural Resources Agency, Karen Ross of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, and Thomas Hedt of the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s California office―discussed key issues and ways their agencies can partner with local stakeholders to ease the process of replenishing groundwater in coming years.

Crowfoot highlighted the importance of working with local communities, governments, and water agencies to address water challenges. “State government doesn’t actually have the solutions. We have the resources and the power of making new laws, but the solutions that are going to help limit disruption as it relates to water are going to be found on the ground,” he said. “The question is what can we do at the state level to empower the locals to find those solutions.”

Ross said multi-benefit approaches will be critically important, particularly for reaping environmental benefits when land is fallowed. “New partnerships and unusual allies” are key to achieving such benefits and finding durable solutions, she noted.

For example, she added, “the environmental justice community and agriculture community continue to partner to find drinking water solutions”—a process that “also bodes well for what we can do on the land.”

Hedt described new federal pilot projects to improve wildlife habitat and promote groundwater recharge. He noted that a key federal farm program has been made more flexible to allow broader partnerships that can enable habitat conservation on farmlands and address other challenges more efficiently.

We invite you watch the video from the event.

This was the second public event about this research; the first was held in Fresno in February.

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