Adaptation Efforts Take Shape in California as Governor Signs Bills

Drought in the Sierra.
Resiliency is on policymakers’ minds as the drought presses on.

The California legislature closed out its session last month by approving a new effort to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector by 2030. There was, understandably, a great deal of attention paid to this historic bill, SB 350 (De León).

Lost in the shuffle, however, was news about some intriguing climate change adaptation efforts in California. Governor Brown moved to focus state planning toward climate resiliency on all fronts, while legislators passed two bills that address state and local preparedness.

Both bills received the Governor’s signature yesterday.

While there is still much more work to be done, these steps forward provide a ray of hope amidst the often dire-seeming news that our agriculture industry could be significantly challenged by climate change in the coming decades, as suggested by a recent USDA report.

What the Science Tells Us

The USDA’s Southwest Climate Hub’s Assessment of Climate Change Vulnerability and Adaptation and Mitigation Strategies, released in August, works its way through the most important California crops and livestock and summarizes what current science has to say about their viability under climate change.

The report notes that California growers already cope with droughts, wildfires, and pest outbreaks. But it suggests that the expected combination of “a longer frost-free season, less frequent cold spells, and more frequent heat waves” could prompt a “northward shift in crop production” for many crops. Unable to cope with the impacts through changes in on-farm management practices, growers may be forced to shift crop types.

Many impacts can be addressed through strategic farm-level management planning, however. The report suggests an expanded role for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and other technical assistance providers, who can, for example, help growers prepare for increased rain events and flooding through the use of conservation practices that reduce erosion. They might also help develop and implement diversification strategies – another of the report’s recommendations for resiliency.

In rangeland contexts, the report warns of “persistently degraded land health” as a result of prolonged droughts, which could “reduce supplies of harvested feeds and pasture forages”.

To build real agricultural resiliency, these farm-level actions must be supported and encouraged within local, regional, and state adaptation frameworks that reflect the unique challenges faced by California growers.

So what role can policy play?

Taking the Long View

In his Executive Order B-30-15, issued in April, Governor Brown was only able to establish climate adaptation directives for state investments and agencies. These directives apply primarily to infrastructure planning, as when the Governor instructs agencies to “take current and future climate change impacts into account” and “employ full life-cycle cost accounting to evaluate and compare infrastructure investments and alternatives”.

There is also an emphasis on “flexible and adaptive approaches…to prepare for uncertain climate impacts”. In the water sector, this could mean increased attention on decentralized water storage, such as regional groundwater banking and recharge efforts. In the agricultural sector it suggests an emphasis on farm-level techniques for resiliency, such as growing healthy soils to store moisture, withstand floods, and reduce off-farm inputs. By increasing farms’ self-sufficiency, the agriculture sector can remain nimble and prepared for the unpredictable crises that climate change may throw at us.

The principles enshrined in the Executive Order likewise point to wiser land use strategies, including better farmland conservation. For example, a perpetual farmland conservation easement is the epitome of long-term planning. Making farmland conservation a bigger part of the state’s planning efforts would reduce pressure on landowners to convert their land to non-farming purposes during periods of climate-induced financial stress, while protecting food security and providing other ecological co-benefits.

Dual Benefits, Not Either/Or

In addition to its long-term planning framework, the Governor’s Executive Order makes clear the value of adaptation practices that both reduce emissions and create resiliency. We have long made the case that agricultural and natural landscapes can provide these dual benefits if properly managed and conserved.

Farmland conservation is also in line with the Governor’s order that “priority should be given to actions that both build climate preparedness and reduce greenhouse gas emissions”. Research has demonstrated the enormous greenhouse gas benefits of farmland conservation, which were a focus of the state’s recent draft Cap-and-Trade Investment Plan. As the draft Investment Plan points out, farmland conservation not only avoids massive GHG increases when that land is converted to urban uses; it also preserves the land’s ability to sequester carbon in soils and vegetation, acting as a carbon sink.

It is critical to target these dual benefits of adaptation and mitigation, particularly since there is no dedicated source of funding for adaptation efforts. In the near term, the majority of climate change-related spending in the state will come from the cap-and-trade auction revenues, whose use must produce greenhouse gas reduction benefits. The best way to fund adaptation, then, is to roll it in with our climate mitigation efforts.

Legislative Efforts

Two bills passed in this legislative session would create a planning and strategic framework to guide adaptation efforts moving forward.

SB 246, authored by Senator Wieckowski (D – Fremont), creates a new state-level program to coordinate local and regional planning efforts, to ensure they are not in conflict with one another or with state objectives. This program’s work is to be informed by a new information clearinghouse on adaptation, ensuring that its efforts align with the most recent scientific research. The bill also creates a new adaptation advisory council to the state’s Office of Planning and Research, which oversees many of the state’s land use planning efforts. Crucially, this adaptation advisory council includes a representative from the agriculture sector.

AB 1482, from Assemblymember Gordon (D – Menlo Park), takes a state-level approach to further the objectives of the Governor’s Executive Order. Its most notable contribution is a requirement that adaptation solutions using “natural systems and natural infrastructure” be prioritized, as opposed to heavy infrastructure solutions. This language points to, among other things, “actions to ensure healthy soils and sustainable agriculture” for their adaptation benefits.

Charting an Encouraging Path Forward

But these two bills, combined with the Governor’s Executive Order, are just the beginning. They do not do all that needs to be done to prepare our state for the impacts ahead. They do, however, chart an encouraging path forward, so long as the principles discussed above are made a key part of the state’s strategies.

As the Climate Hub’s recent assessment demonstrates, locally-relevant and timely research is very much needed to advance these efforts. Just last week, the California Natural Resources Agency released its long-awaited Request for Proposals (RFP) for a suite of research that will guide adaptation decision-making processes from the agency-level down to the farm-level. Funded projects will investigate these topics, among others:

  • The use of mulch, compost, and manure to enhance resilience and water conservation;
  • The economic and environmental costs, benefits, and risks of agricultural adaptation in California; and
  • The potential for and benefits of carbon sequestration on California’s rangelands.

We encourage all eligible and interested research entities to apply. We hope that these projects will explore actions with dual mitigation and adaptation benefits, take a whole system approach, and produce results that are directly applicable to farmers, ranchers, and their communities.

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