Can farmland set aside make California’s Central Valley more equitable? — High Country News – Meet the West

The people of Fairmead, California, in the Central Valley, have struggled for years to gain reliable access to clean drinking water. The unincorporated community of about 1,300 — “mostly people of color, low-income people, people who are struggling and trying to get by,” according to Fairmead resident Barbara Nelson — depend on shallow wells for their needs. But in recent years, the combination of drought and agricultural over-pumping has caused some domestic wells to rupture. dry upand one of the town’s wells is currently very low.

Last year, Fairmead received a grant to help plan for farmland removal to recharge groundwater under the California Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA. But the community’s vision for the future is bigger than that: Locals also want to see better air quality, a community center, and reliable home wells.

The West is not only facing an energy transition, it is also at the beginning of a major land and water use transition. In California’s Central Valley, groundwater regulations will require removing between 500,000 and 1 million acres by 2040. (Removing, or “fallowing,” refers to taking land out of agricultural production.) Planning and decision-making now underway at more than 260 groundwater sustainability agencies will determine how EMS plays out in different groundwater basins: whether landowners will be compensated for set-aside land, what land will be converted and who will manage it, and how counties will replace the revenue they currently collect from farmland and use to help provide services to residents in need.

“The side effects of agriculture have a huge impact on the environment and on everyone.”

But while groundwater sustainability is SGMA’s focus, it’s not the only thing on Central Valley residents’ minds: They also need jobs, as well as clean air and water. Many Central Valley towns have diverse demographics; Fairmead, for example, is over 70% Latino, mostly immigrants and predominantly Spanish-speaking, but there are also Black, Asian, Native American, Mixed Race, and White people. Median household income is less than half the state median, and residents are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards.

Workers pack melons at a farm in Firebaugh, California, near Fairmead. Farm jobs lost to fallow farmland would have to be replaced to support Central Valley residents.

David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

“The side effects of agriculture have a huge impact on the environment and everyone,” said Ángel Fernández-Bou, a climate scientist with the nonprofit science advocacy organization Union of Concerned Scientists, who researches the transition from land use in the Central Valley. He and others spoke with high county news on how SGMA can help create a healthier and more sustainable post-agriculture Central Valley:

Improvement of air and water quality: The locals are in dire need of better air quality. “When they spray, they spray all kinds of pesticides,” said Nelson, who is also president of Fairmead Community and Friends. “The Central Valley has a lot of problems with people with asthma and COPD because a lot of things grow here. The environment is bad for breathing, and it is also very hot”.

About 200 million pounds of pesticides are used in California each year, and the geographic pattern of their application is one of environmental inequality: According to the Pesticide Action Network, majority-Latino counties see 906 percent more pesticide use than counties with less than 24%. Latino residents. Fernández-Bou estimated that creating “buffer zones” by removing farmland in a one-mile radius around the “disadvantaged communities” of the Central Valley, a term used by the state of California for municipalities with median household incomes less than 80% of the state. — would decrease pesticide use by 12 million pounds and also combat the health effects of pesticide drift.

Agricultural inputs also affect water quality. When nitrate from fertilizers seeps into aquifers, it can cause chronic health effects and conditions, such as blue baby syndrome. A long-term study by the Environmental Working Group found that 69 Central Valley water systems serving at least 1.5 million residents, most of them Latino, exceeded federal nitrate standards. The impact is likely to be even greater, given the numerous domestic wells. Creating buffer zones would reduce nitrate leaching into aquifers by more than 200 million pounds per year, Fernández-Bou calculated.

The impact of soil fallow on dust is less clear. The Public Policy Institute of California has raised concerns about increased dust being blown off fallow land affecting farmworkers and nearby communities. But Fernández-Bou took a more optimistic view, saying dust is often a problem when farmers till fallow fields; Left alone, he said, cover crops or weeds will develop roots that hold the soil in place.

A tractor kicks up dust while plowing a dry field in Chowchilla, California, near Fairmead. Leaving more farmland fallow could increase dust, but climate scientist Ángel Fernández-Bou said dust is often a problem when farmers till fallow fields; Left alone, he said, cover crops or weeds will develop roots that hold the soil in place.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Workforce Transition: For many Central Valley residents, the biggest question has to do with work, wondering how they will earn a living once farmland is cleared. Getting out of farming is “a hard pill to swallow,” said Eddie Ocampo, director of Self-Help Enterprises. “Everyone is in favor of economic diversity, but there will be a gap, and the most vulnerable will be hit the hardest.”

According to the Fernández-Bou buffer zone model, approximately 25,682 agricultural jobs would be lost. Communities are just beginning to think about what will replace them. One option is renewable energy: California’s SB100 law requires the state to be 100% renewable by 2045, a similar timeline to SGMA’s land fallow, and the Central Valley is eyed for significant solar production. “We are going to see sustained long-term demand for solar construction and maintenance jobs,” said Andrew Ayres of the Public Policy Institute of California. Community colleges in the Central Valley are working to develop training programs for these jobs. Another initiative plans to retrain farmworkers to install water recycling systems.

“Everyone is in favor of economic diversity, but there will be a gap, and the most vulnerable will be hit the hardest.”

Access to drinking water: Like Fairmead, many of the Central Valley’s low-income rural communities lack urban water infrastructure and must rely on shallow domestic and municipal wells for their drinking water needs. Because SGMA prioritizes access to clean water, many people believe it could improve the health of those wells. “Generally speaking, EMS implementation will be good for rural groundwater wells,” Ayres said. Recharging groundwater, she said, “can boost those community wells.”

Dialogue: The planning process itself, Ocampo said, has been beneficial to the Central Valley. Developing successful land reuse plans, she said, requires the participation of diverse interests: agribusiness, environmental justice organizations, land trusts, and underrepresented communities. “Many stakeholders realize that the more diversity of opinion there is, the more beneficial and inclusive the outcome will be,” Ocampo said.

Planning for groundwater sustainability gives historically agricultural communities the opportunity to envision a myriad of new economies and land uses that will shape the future of the Central Valley. Habitat restoration, parks, regenerative agriculture, community centers, and refrigeration centers are all on the table.

“I would say the possibilities are endless,” Fernández-Bou said. “But please don’t bring bad things to the valley.”

Caroline Tracey is a Climate Justice Fellow at High Country News. Send an email to [email protected] or send a letter to the editor. see our letter to the editor policy.