BY CDFA Secretary Karen Ross and California Department of Conservation Director David Shabazian
While California is known for its world-famous entertainment industry and ever-transforming tech sector, agriculture is the often-overlooked backbone of our diverse state and one of its earliest economic engines.
Our state’s multigenerational farmers and ranchers not only feed Californians, but also supply one-third of our country’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts, while also leading the nation in milk production.
Yet as other parts of our economy spring back to post-pandemic life, farmers and ranchers are facing major water shortages in the second straight year of drought — the new norm in a changing climate. Some farmers already are making difficult choices about which crops to grow and are even tearing out orchards.
Thanks to an enormous budget surplus, however, California is uniquely poised to help the agricultural sector adapt to increasingly scarce water supplies while also benefiting rural communities and wildlife — if our state leaders take action.
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s budget proposal includes a bold $5.1 billion investment in drought response and water resilience. Of that, $500 million is proposed to help farmers repurpose fields to more water-efficient uses that deliver new benefits, such as open space for rural communities, recharge basins to store water, habitat corridors for wildlife and lands to store carbon.
While $500 million may sound like a lot, it’s just the start of what’s truly needed to address the scope of the challenge facing the state, particularly the Central Valley.
During the last drought, state leaders passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act to address decades of unregulated groundwater pumping, which caused land to sink, infrastructure to crumble and drinking water and irrigation wells to go dry. The law requires regions to balance groundwater supply and demand within 20 years, and ensure there is enough water to sustain agriculture and communities into the future.
Unfortunately, bringing groundwater use into balance could mean decreasing the agricultural footprint of California’s Central Valley by 500,000 to 750,000 acres — the size of Yosemite National Park and 10% to 15% of total farm acreage. During this transition, it is absolutely crucial that local communities and landowners have funding to work collaboratively and determine how best to manage these lands.
Without strategic planning, these lands could become a haphazard patchwork of dusty fields infested with weeds and pests, affecting remaining agricultural lands and further impairing air quality. However, with all hands on deck working together, we have an opportunity to help farmers voluntarily repurpose these fields into new positive uses.