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Commentary: We can help farmers by retiring some parched lands

Issue Date: November 10, 2021
By Jay Ziegler and Dan Vink
Jay Ziegler
Dan Vink
A pistachio orchard in Tulare County is pictured next to the dry bed of Deer Creek in 2018. California’s “new hydrology” means longer droughts and some new land management decisions.
Photo/Lara Weatherly, The Nature Conservancy

We are all celebrating a rare atmospheric river storm event that recently hit a temporary pause button on California's record drought. At the same time, climate scientists are telling us that these kinds of storm events are part of California's "new hydrology." That means a future where we will experience longer, multi-year periods of droughts interrupted by big storms.

Against the backdrop of droughts and our new climate reality, water users in the San Joaquin Valley continued to overdraft the regional basins to the tune of 2 million acre-feet annually, according to a 2019 report by the Public Policy Institute of California.

To bring the basins into balance and meet the requirements of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act will require fallowing land in the range of 500,000 acres in the years ahead, possibly much more depending on the solutions we can create.

A hopeful vision for the future will require a well-planned and coordinated land use strategy that makes sense for both agriculture and their local communities, while also restoring and improving environmental function.

Crop switching and increasing water use efficiency through infrastructure improvements and soil management practices, such as those supported by the California Department of Food and Agriculture and U.S. Department of Agriculture National Resources Conservation Service, are part of the water-balancing equation. But we will need more tools in critically overdrafted basins to achieve long-term water use sustainability.

The state budget adopted by the legislature and Gov. Newsom offers real hope for land repurposing. There is a path forward in a new pilot effort—funded with $50 million in the state budget—where we have a potential to strike a new balance by strategically retiring certain lands that can provide other public benefits.

These benefits are vast and include groundwater recharge and habitat for millions of migratory birds, renewable solar energy generation, public recreation, improved air and water quality for local communities, and restoration of upland habitats for endangered species.

Strategic land repurposing can result in greater predictability of water supplies for farmers while meeting sustainable groundwater management objectives.

The new land retirement program in the state budget also provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to restore a connected network of natural lands that will not only help achieve groundwater sustainability targets required by SGMA, but could also recover and delist over 10 species that are currently on the Endangered Species list—what would be the largest recovery in the history of the Endangered Species Act.

By strategically restoring these lands in areas where subsidence, groundwater overdraft and water quality problems are most severe, we could secure safe-drinking water supplies for the poorest communities in the Valley and avoid ongoing damage to vital water infrastructure.

The benefits of repurposing the least sustainable agricultural lands are clear, but it will come with very real costs to individual landowners, the broader community that relies on this agricultural economy and the reliability of a locally produced food supply. That is why retirement and restoration must be done strategically and in partnership with local communities, farmers and irrigation districts.

The Nature Conservancy and other organizations are developing and testing approaches to strategic land retirement and restoration where targeted restoration can be best achieved with minimal additional impacts to the agricultural economy and food production.

New partnerships and broad collaboration are needed to shape changes in land use across the San Joaquin Valley in a way that increases the long-term viability of agriculture while improving social and environmental outcomes.

An ongoing partnership between the Pixley and Lower Tule groundwater sustainability agencies in Tulare County, Audubon California and The Nature Conservancy to develop a pilot project is one example of such a collaboration. The Nature Conservancy and Audubon California are providing scientific capacity to the newly formed Tule Basin Land and Water Conservation Trust to inform how strategic land retirement can best be positioned in the Tule Subbasin, using analyses to evaluate optimal selection of lands for multiple benefits.

The Nature Conservancy is also co-investing in land use transition projects to demonstrate what is possible. New partnerships and broad collaboration are needed to shape San Joaquin Valley land retirement in a way that increases the long-term viability of agriculture while improving social and environmental outcomes.

If we can do this right, we can deliver a model for the San Joaquin Valley that is both economically, socially and ecologically resilient.

(Jay Ziegler is the director of policy for The Nature Conservancy. He may be reached at; Dan Vink, is principal partner for Six-33 solutions and may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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