An overlooked water resource – from the Christian Science Monitor

By Diana Donlon

In bone-dry California we are counting the days until October when the rainy season should begin.

When wells run dry in the Central Valley, fires rage in Big Sur and pine forests in the Sierra Nevada die off, you can’t help but wonder where all the water has gone. But what if we asked a slightly different question: where should the water be?

To answer this it helps to know that soil hydrologists classify fresh water as either blue or green, according to Henry Lin, Professor of Hydropedology / Soil Hydrology at Penn State University.

“Blue water refers to water collected in rivers, lakes, wetlands and groundwater,” said Lin. “Blue water is available for withdrawal before it evaporates or meets the ocean. Green water refers to water absorbed by soil and plants and is then released back into the air. Green water is unavailable for withdrawal.”

Nevertheless, it may be surprising to learn that what ends up as blue water represents only approximately 38.8 percent of total precipitation, whereas what ends up as green water represents the remaining approximately 61.1 percent of precipitation.

Although green water clearly represents the lion’s share of precipitation, as Professor Lin states, “green water is an often overlooked resource.”

Why do we fail to see the green water—the water that is stored in soils and consumed by plants?

Film-maker Deborah Koons Garcia provides one hypothesis. Koons Garcia, who wrote and directed Symphony of the Soil, an homage to Earth’s living soil system, points out that most people are “soil blind.”

If we “saw soil,” she says we would recognize that when it is healthy, soil acts like a giant sponge that absorbs water during floods and provides it to plants in times of drought. We would also “see” the difference between soils that have structure and soils that don’t. In order for soil to store water effectively it must have organic matter, or carbon. This carbon gives soil the structure necessary to carry out its filtering and holding functions. When rain falls on soils that are carbon deficient, the water isn’t absorbed into the soil sponge.

Instead, the rain sloughs off the ground’s surface, dragging valuable topsoil along with it. This is what is referred to as ineffective rainfall and it is how green water starts to go missing from the soil sponge.

The good news is that soil blindness can be easily cured by learning something about soil’s remarkable potential, and rainfall can be made more effective. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has determined that a one percent increase in organic matter (carbon) in the top six inches of soil increases its holding capacity by approximately 27,000 gallons of water per acre.

Increasing soil carbon can be done in a number of ways including cover-cropping, composting and planting deep-rooted perennials. The average farm size in California is 312 acres. Increasing the soil carbon content by one percent on just one farm (27,000 gallons x 312 acres) has the potential to yield an additional 8,424,000 gallons of green water. Multiply that by California’s 81,500 farms and you begin to grasp the transformative potential that increasing soil carbon by a mere one percent would have on the state’s green water supply.

“Worldwide,” says Lin, “nearly 90 percent of water consumed by croplands is green water making green water key to global food security and land use.”

Once we start actually seeing soil, we can realize that much of the water that has gone missing is of the green variety. The next step is to increase the organic matter on our fields so that when the rains finally come we’ll have forged the conditions to recreate the soil sponge.

Link to article



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Why industrial farms are good for the environment – op-ed in the New York Times


By Jayson Lusk, professor of agricultural economics, Oklahoma State University

There is much to like about small, local farms and their influence on what we eat. But if we are to sustainably deal with problems presented by population growth and climate change, we need to look to the farmers who grow a majority of the country’s food and fiber.

Large farmers — who are responsible for 80 percent of the food sales in the United States, though they make up fewer than 8 percent of all farms, according to 2012 data from the Department of Agriculture — are among the most progressive, technologically savvy growers on the planet. Their technology has helped make them far gentler on the environment than at any time in history. And a new wave of innovation makes them more sustainable still.

A vast majority of the farms are family­ owned. Very few, about 3 percent, are run by non-family corporations. Large farm owners (about 159,000) number fewer than the residents of a medium­-size city like Springfield, Mo. Their wares, from milk, lettuce and beef to soy, are unlikely to be highlighted on the menus of farm-­to-table restaurants, but they fill the shelves at your local grocery store.

There are legitimate fears about soil erosion, manure lagoons, animal welfare and nitrogen runoff at large farms — but it’s not just environmental groups that worry. Farmers are also concerned about fertilizer use and soil runoff. That’s one reason they’re turning to high-­tech solutions like precision agriculture. Using location-­specific information about soil nutrients, moisture and productivity of the previous year, new tools, known as “variable rate applicators,” can put fertilizer only on those areas of the field that need it (which may reduce nitrogen runoff into waterways). GPS signals drive many of today’s tractors, and new planters are allowing farmers to distribute seed varieties to diverse spots of a field to produce more food from each unit of land. They also modulate the amount and type of seed on each part of a field — in some places, leaving none at all.

Many food shoppers have difficulty comprehending the scale and complexity facing modern farmers, especially those who compete in a global marketplace. For example, the median lettuce field is managed by a farmer who has 1,373 football fields of that plant to oversee. For tomatoes, the figure is 620 football fields; for wheat, 688 football fields; for corn, 453 football fields. How are farmers able to manage growing crops on this daunting scale? Decades ago, they dreamed about tools to make their jobs easier, more efficient and better for the land: soil sensors to measure water content, drones, satellite images, alternative management techniques like low­ and no­till farming, efficient irrigation and mechanical harvesters.

Today, that technology is a regular part of operations at large farms.   Farmers watch the evolution of crop prices and track thunderstorms on their smartphones. They use livestock waste to create electricity using anaerobic digesters, which convert manure to methane. Drones monitor crop yields, insect infestations and the location and health of cattle. Innovators are moving high­-value crops indoors to better control water use and pests. Before “factory farming” became a pejorative, agricultural scholars of the mid­ 20th century were calling for farmers to do just that — become more factory-like and business-like. From that time, farm sizes have risen significantly. It is precisely this large size that is often criticized today in the belief that large farms put profit ahead of soil and animal health. But increased size has advantages, especially better opportunities to invest in new technologies and to benefit from economies of scale. Buying a $400,000 combine that gives farmers detailed information on the variations in crop yield in different parts of the field would never pay on just five acres of land; at 5,000 acres, it is a different story.

These technologies reduce the use of water and fertilizer and harm to the environment. Modern seed varieties, some of which were brought about by biotechnology, have allowed farmers to convert to low­ and no-­till cropping systems, and can encourage the adoption of nitrogen­fixing cover crops such as clover or alfalfa to promote soil health. Herbicide­-resistant crops let farmers control weeds without plowing, and the same technology allows growers to kill off cover crops if they interfere with the planting of cash crops. The herbicide­-resistant crops have some downsides: They can lead to farmers’ using more herbicide (though the type of herbicide is important, and the new crops have often led to the use of safer, less toxic ones). But in most cases, it’s a trade­off worth making, because they enable no­-till farming methods, which help prevent soil erosion. These practices are one reason soil erosion has declined more than 40 percent since the 1980s.

Improvements in agricultural technologies and production practices have significantly lowered the use of energy and water, and greenhouse ­gas emissions of food production per unit of output over time. United States crop production now is twice what it was in 1970. That would not be a good change if more land, water, pesticides and labor were being used. But that is not what happened: Agriculture is using nearly half the labor and 16 percent less land than it did in 1970. Instead, farmers increased production through innovation. Wheat breeders, for example, using traditional techniques assisted by the latest genetic tools and information, have created varieties that resist disease without numerous applications of insecticides and fungicides. Nearly all corn and soybean farmers practice crop rotation, giving soil a chance to recover.

Research is moving beyond simple measures of nitrogen and phosphorus content to look at the microbes in the soil. New industry-wide initiatives are focused on quantifying and measuring soil health. The goal is to provide measurements of factors affecting the long­term value of the soil and to identify which practices — organic, conventional or otherwise — will ensure that farmers can responsibly produce plenty of food for our grandchildren.

Link to article


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USDA awards nearly $300K to regional organizations for programs serving new and underserved farmers

The U.S. Department Agriculture (USDA) has announced that nearly $300,000 will be awarded to regional organizations in California to train and educate new and underserved farmers and ranchers on Farm Service Agency (FSA) programs and services.

The University of California-Davis will receive $75,000 to provide financial literacy training to small-scale, new and specialty crop and livestock producers in the Northern California foothills.  State Center Community College District will concentrate its $20,000 in funding toward outreach and education efforts to California’s Central Valley. California Farmlink will receive $75,000 to establish financial management workshops offering participants access to important business tools and resources.

Additionally, Fresno’s Valley Small Business Development Corporation will receive $50,000 to provide outreach to Central Valley farmers and ranchers seeking support and services from FSA programs; $20,000 will be provided to National Hmong American Farmers of Fresno to work with underserved growers and help them obtain crop insurance; and Sustainable Agriculture Education of Berkeley will receive $58,727 to help new farmers and ranchers develop business plans, obtain crop insurance and improve the success of their operations.

The announcement is the latest in a series of cooperative agreements between USDA FSA and organizations designed to promote agriculture. To date, $2.5 million has been awarded to 60 nonprofit organizations, universities and foundations in 28 states.  FSA administers farm commodity safety net, credit, conservation and emergency assistance programs for farmers and ranchers. To learn more about the cooperative agreements and participating organizations, visit or contact your local FSA county office.  Local FSA offices can be found by visiting




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Elementary school students learn about critters at CDFA lab

A group of eight and nine year-olds from Sacramento's Merryhill visted CDFA's Meadowview laboratory complex this week to learn about the agency's work to protect the state from invasive species.

A group of eight and nine year-olds from Sacramento’s Merryhill School visited CDFA’s Plant Pest Diagnostics Center this week to learn about the agency’s work to protect the state from invasive species.

Several students had an opportunity to meet a nematode, up close and personal.

Several students had an opportunity to meet an invasive species, up close and personal.

The students all received this coloring book to commemorate their visit.

The students all received this coloring book to commemorate their visit.

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Apple Hill – the season is upon us

With the first day of Fall arriving this week, Californians are again starting to turn their attention to El Dorado County’s Apple Hill, which is now in the midst of its 2016 production season. From CDFA’s award-winning Growing California video series, here’s an encore presentation on Apple Hill’s draw as a tourism destination.


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CDFA participates in American Heart Association Heart Walk

CDFA employees gathered at the State Capitol today for the American Heart Associations's Heart Walk. A total of 140 Department employees participated, raising $2.814 for heart health.

CDFA employees gathered at the State Capitol today for the American Heart Associations’s Heart Walk. A total of 140 Department employees participated, raising $2,814 for heart health.


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CDFA joins partnership to study nitrate leaching from irrigated agriculture in Central Valley – from the Fresno Bee

Photo by Diana Baldrica, Fresno Bee

Photo by Diana Baldrica, Fresno Bee

By Robert Rodriguez

The Kings River Water Quality Coalition along with several other South Valley water quality coalitions received a $2 million grant from the federal government to address nitrate leaching from irrigated agriculture.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture grant will be used to launch a program to quantify and minimize the nitrate leaching from farming operations in the southern San Joaquin Valley, including portions of Fresno, Kings and Tulare counties.

The funding that came from the USDA’s Conservation Innovation Grant program will be implemented over 1.8 million acres of irrigated agriculture from Fresno to Kern counties. The goal of the program is to increase the use of conservation practices to protect water quality.

The project includes several partners, including the University of California Cooperative Extension, California State University and California Department of Food and Agriculture.

“This project provides support to growers in their efforts to continue to improve their operational efficiency while addressing groundwater quality objectives recently established for irrigated agriculture,” said Casey Creamer, coordinator of the Kings River Water Quality Coalition, which is administering the grant program in partnership with the six other water quality coalitions.

The coalitions partnering in the grant include the Buena Vista Coalition, Cawelo Water District Coalition, Kaweah Basin Water Quality Association, Kern River Watershed Coalition Authority, Kings River Water Quality Coalition, Tule Basin Water Quality Coalition and Westside Water Quality Coalition.

Link to story

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UCLA researchers warn that centuries of drought could return to California – from the San Francisco Chronicle


By Bill Disbrow

We may someday have to stop calling our drought a temporary phenomenon and just label it the new normal. Climate change could lock the state into a dry pattern lasting centuries or even a millennia if history repeats itself, according to a new study out of UCLA.

Researchers correlated findings from Sierra Nevada soil samples and found that energy changes from natural occurrences like a shift in the Earth’s orbit or sun spots may have triggered prolonged dry weather in California. In the journal Scientific Reports, the team argues that current radiative forcing – energy change  brought on by greenhouse gas emissions – may create a similar prolonged dry pattern in the Golden State.

“Radiative forcing in the past appears to have had catastrophic effects in extending droughts,” UCLA professor Glen MacDonald said in a university publication. “When you have arid periods that persist for 60 years, as we did in the 12th century, or for millennia, as we did from 6,000 to 1,000 B.C., that’s not really a ‘drought.’ That aridity is the new normal.”

From 6,000 to 1,000 B.C., the core sample indicates a 5,000-year dry period in California that had been suggested by previous research. That period was linked to a slight change in Earth’s orbit that resulted in increased solar energy in the Northern Hemisphere and creating La Niña conditions.

MacDonald’s team correlated historic radiative forcing with increased water temperatures in our oceans, likely creating more La Niña and El Niño weather patterns during previous dry spells. If greenhouse gasses persist, MacDonald warns that we could see more of these boom-or-bust winters, potentially bringing a significant change to California’s ecosystems.

“In a century or so, we might see a retreat of forest lands, and an expansion of sagebrush, grasslands and deserts,” MacDonald said in the UCLA release. “We would expect temperatures to get higher, and rainfall and snowfall would decrease. Fire activity could increase, and lakes would get shallower, with some becoming marshy or drying up.”

MacDonald stressed that his study can’t be used to predict the future, but it does offer cause for concern.

Link to article


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#Farm2Fan video series – Kingsburg Family-Farmed Blueberries

California Grown and Visit California are teaming up to produce the #Farm2Fan video series, profiling farms throughout California and fans of those farms who stop by for a visit.

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CDFA collaborates on draft ‘Vibrant Communities and Landscapes’ plan to help meet climate change goals


Note – CDFA is a collaborative partner in an effort to meet a mid-term greenhouse gas reduction reduction target for California of 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. CDFA is joining with the following agencies: Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency, California Environmental Protection Agency, California Natural Resources Agency, California State Transportation Agency, California Health and Human Services Agency, California Department of Food and Agriculture, the Strategic Growth Council, and the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research.

Land use decisions, including development patterns, land conservation and protection, and land management practices, play a critical role in the State’s future and achievement of its long-term community health, environmental, and economic goals. This vision, and set of actions included to realize it, is the result of a collaborative dialogue and a shared desire to better consider land use in State climate change programs and other initiatives that support the State’s long-term environmental goals.


As the State works toward its 2030 and 2050 climate change goals, its land base, including natural, working, and developed areas, is recognized as foundational and integral to the State’s climate policy, economy, and quality of life. As such, the State plays a meaningful and impactful role in shaping the future communities and landscapes of California. Because of the pivotal role of land use in the State’s environmental, economic, health, and related policies, California is taking action to grow in a manner that assures:

• Development and conservation investments and decisions focus on building social equity and supporting thriving and healthy communities with improved access to and supply of affordable housing, transportation alternatives, open space and outdoor recreational opportunities, affordable healthy foods, living-wage jobs, social support, and economic and educational opportunities;

• The land base, including natural, working, and developed areas, is a foundational element of the State’s strategy to meet GHG emission reduction targets. This importance is further recognized in other land, energy, and climate change policy documents and decisions, including State, local, and regional planning and investments;

• Land is protected, managed, and developed in a manner that maximizes resilient carbon storage, food security, and other ecological, economic, and health objectives. Natural and working lands are used to build resilience in natural, built, and social systems, and provide buffers against changing climate conditions that will allow for flexible adaptation pathways;

• New development and infrastructure are built primarily in locations with existing infrastructure, services, and amenities (i.e., previously-developed locations), rather than greenfield locations; and

• The value of ecosystem services conferred by natural systems are accounted for and included in State, local, and regional planning and investment decisions, resulting in protection of these services and California’s globally significant biodiversity.

This document was developed with the recognition that land use decisions are inherently difficult decisions that require consideration of many conflicts and tradeoffs, and balancing the needs of many constituencies, including disadvantaged communities, businesses, local agencies, developers, and landowners.

This document is not intended to reconcile these issues or to remove them from the domain of local governments. Rather, this document is intended to consider land use in the context of the California’s climate change policy and how the State can support actions, at all levels of government, to facilitate development and conservation patterns that help to achieve the State’s climate goals.

Public comments are welcome and may be directed to

Link to draft report

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