$50,000 grant helps The Freshwater Trust provide planning tools to farmers and ranchers in California

October 17, 2018

The Water Foundation, a nonprofit philanthropic organization working to improve how water is managed in the West, awarded The Freshwater Trust (TFT) $50,000 to help farmers and ranchers in California understand their options for more sustainable management of groundwater resources.

In late 2014, California Governor Jerry Brown signed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) into law. SGMA mandated the creation of Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs), groups formed from local agencies, such as reclamation and water districts, that are responsible for ensuring groundwater is more sustainably managed. Under SGMA, these GSAs are charged with developing a plan to sustainably manage their local groundwater resources, and implementing the plan by 2040.

“Getting these basins to a sustainable state presents challenges, but it’s necessary to support California’s unique environmental legacy as well as its crucial agricultural enterprises,” said Erik Ringelberg, California Director with TFT. “Two things are really going to be necessary in this process: collaboration and earning trust between all parties involved. The agricultural producers who will likely be impacted by the new plans must understand and trust the approaches being implemented.”

TFT seeks to foster that collaboration and trust by developing educational materials and web-based decision support tools that will contribute to farmers and ranchers understanding their options for staying in compliance with SGMA and remaining engaged in water management decisions in their home basins.

“We want to bring additional information and tools to the table that will showcase how producers – key stakeholders in these basins – can individually and collectively help achieve these new groundwater goals,” said Ringelberg. “We can be a translator and have the privilege of working alongside them to show how they can contribute to the eventual sustainability of the basin, while maintaining the success of their agricultural operations.”

There is a suite of options for growers to improve groundwater quality and quantity, including upgrading irrigation and cover cropping. While many farms are often left bare when crops are not growing, cover crops can be planted between rotations to increase soil fertility, reduce erosion, and increase the soil’s ability to retain water.

“The roots of cover crops create space for more water to be held and move underground,” said Ringelberg. “It’s important for all stakeholders to understand how options like this will impact both the water resources and their bottom lines. This knowledge will help them make informed decisions about land and water management.”

The funding from the Water Foundation will help TFT develop user-friendly tools that weigh and rank different land and water management practices based on a suite of desired outcomes – including benefits to groundwater quality and quantity as well as the farm-scale economic impacts of implementing the selected practices.

“Ensuring groundwater is sustained as a reliable source of water for coming decades,” is one of the Water Foundation’s current priorities.

TFT has a long history of working alongside agricultural producers. The nonprofit leases water rights with producers in Eastern Oregon to keep millions of gallons of water in key tributaries for native fish species during critical times of the year. In Southern Oregon, land is leased from farmers and ranchers to engage in streamside revegetation projects.

“Having a positive impact on water resources requires working alongside the people who manage the resource every day,” said Ringelberg. “That’s something we’ve done in Oregon & Idaho and look forward to doing more of in California with the support of organizations like the Water Foundation and others.”

Since opening its Sacramento office in 2016, TFT has created and deployed several programs in California.

Senate Bill 88, passed in 2015, made it mandatory for those diverting more than 10-acre feet of surface water per year to install calibrated meters by January 1, 2018. TFT developed an alternative approach that can be used by irrigators in the region to meet the requirements of the law. Instead of installing meters, which are often unreliable, irrigators can work with TFT to combine real crop and water management data with state of the art models and remote sensing technology to create a more accurate and cost-effective picture of actual water use. In 2017, 148 surface water diversions covering more than 29,000 farmed acres in the region — including wine grapes, pears, corn, alfalfa, safflower, tomatoes and wheat — had been enrolled in the five-year program.

Last year, TFT was also integral in the formation of a new GSA when it helped 17 local GSAs form one integrated agency with a united plan for a sustainably managed groundwater basin.

“California has always been known as a place for new beginnings,” said Ringelberg. “We believe the legislation that’s been enacted over the last few years in response to a serious drought affords opportunity to create a new water future. It’s exciting to be a part of creating that.”