California Turns to Business of Reducing Climate Risk

AP Photo/Austin American Statesman, Jay Jenner
AP Photo/Austin American Statesman, Jay Jenner

Although California continues to invest in combatting global warming emissions, we have yet to see comparable efforts mobilized in the name of climate change preparedness and adaptation. How do we, as a state, prepare for the inevitable risks climate change poses for our communities?

It is in this context that the Natural Resources Agency recently released its public review draft of a document entitled Safeguarding California: Reducing Climate Risk. This plan is an update to the original California Climate Adaptation Strategy, which was produced in 2009 under an Executive Order from Governor Schwarzenegger.

Overall, the draft plan makes a strong case for putting state resources to work on making our communities resilient to rising temperatures and more extreme weather events. In the Agriculture section, it highlights a number of excellent ideas for increasing resiliency, including protecting farmland from development and increasing water use efficiency.

The 288-page report has a good deal of depth, drawing out the important challenges that lie ahead and including the concerns of a wide range of stakeholders. Sidebars feature a series of first-person ‘testimonials’, including one by agricultural water stewardship leader John Diener of Red Rock Ranch in Fresno County.

However, the draft plan fails to identify which adaptation projects should hold priority over others. As a result, it often reads like a ‘wish list’ of possible actions, with no clear direction to policymakers on where they should invest the limited adaptation funding that does exist.

Since the review draft was released in December, CalCAN has met with Natural Resources Agency staff and delivered our recommendations for improving the plan at public workshops. We recently submitted detailed written comments on the SCP draft, in which we primarily offer suggestions for improving the Agriculture chapter.

Below we summarize our recommendations for how the State can improve adaptation planning in California agriculture. (To view our recommendations in full, click here [pdf].)

Technical assistance should take priority over research.

There is a strong emphasis in the report on research needs. While there is still some important research to be done, the State’s priority should be to invest in technical and financial assistance for farmers, supporting on-the-ground changes that keep farmers and ranchers on the land.

The Department of Food and Agriculture’s Climate Change Adaptation Consortium report, featuring input from a broad range of agricultural stakeholders, points to a multitude of  adaptation strategies that need better on-the-ground support to become reality.  For example, crop diversification, on-farm water storage, and planting hedgerows were all identified as practices that provide climate adaptation benefits.

Agricultural adaptation strategies should focus on meaningful changes that support farmers in preparing their operations for climate risks like reduced water resources, new pest and disease pressures, and shifts in the kinds of crops that will grow in their region.

Support conservation planning, whole farm system efforts.

There is an abundance of evidence [pdf] that biologically-diverse, sustainable farming systems offer increased resilience across the whole farm. These systems incorporate soil health, crop diversification, water use efficiency, resource conservation, wildlife and pollinator habitat, and many other ‘adaptive behaviors’. Conservation plans that address long-term energy, water and natural resource needs can also be useful for adapting to climate threats and extremes. These tools already exist and are used by many conservation stewards across the state. The state should provide technical and financial assistance for growers to integrate sustainable farming practices and long-term resource planning into their normal, everyday management.

Outreach and research efforts should be sure to include small- to medium-scale farms.

California is made up a diversity of farms and ranches, including many small and mid-scale producers who may not have employees or family members who can focus on climate risk planning issues.

The state’s adaptation programs will only be as effective as their delivery to the target audience. All adaptation efforts should be designed to acknowledge the state’s incredible diversity of farm sizes, and should include targeted outreach to operations with the least ability to independently seek assistance.

On-farm renewable energy production is an important tool for rural self-sufficiency and resiliency.

In its Energy chapter, the plan discusses the coming challenges to electricity distribution and access, including increased costs and a less reliable grid during extreme weather events. Agricultural energy consumers, who consume more energy and are usually located in rural areas with older grid infrastructure, will bear a disproportionate burden of these energy-related risks.

On-farm renewable energy, including solar, wind, and bioenergy, is an excellent tool for reducing greenhouse gas emissions – but it also provides clear adaptation advantages. We must continue to support and expand policies and programs that provide simplified, easy access to diversified, distributed renewable energy generation.

Conclusion

The Natural Resources Agency will release its final Safeguarding California plan later this year. Although it is not a binding document, we believe all Californians have a strong stake in seeing that this report contributes clear policy guidance that legislators and decision-makers can use when pursuing urgent adaptation needs.

CalCAN looks forward to a growing dialogue around issues of agricultural adaptation in California, and we hope this important planning document will help to bring those concerns to the fore.

For more information on practices to enhance the resilience of California to climate change, check out our series of fact sheets: Farming for Success in the 21st Century. These resources were funded by a grant from Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, and produced in partnership with the California Association of Resource Conservation Districts, California NRCS and UC Cooperative Extension.

Stay Connected
Get newsletter and blog updates and action alerts from CalCAN