New Blueprint for California Water Management Recognizes Soil Health

Posted on Thursday, August 13th, 2020 by Brian Shobe
The Newsom Administration’s final 141-page Water Resilience Portfolio was released on July 28, 2020.

Governor Newsom’s administration recently released its final version of a Water Resilience Portfolio, a blueprint for the administration’s approach to equipping the state to cope with volatile water resources in the years and decades to come.

The final portfolio, as stated in the administration’s news release, “recognizes the role of healthy soils in building resilience, including efforts that promote using working lands to sequester carbon, store water and prevent pollution.”

We were pleased to see the final report included a number of the recommendations we made as part of our comment letters to inform the drafting process. They included:

Recognition of soil health, working lands, and technical assistance as integral to water supply and quality

The final plan includes a section of actions related to improving soil health on farms and ranches through incentives, demonstrations, partnerships, and technical assistance (p. 23):

16.1     Fund the Healthy Soils program, which supports on-farm practices that enhance water retention and provide other environmental benefits, through incentives, demonstrations, and technical assistance.

16.2     Enhance agricultural lands for biodiversity, resilience, and habitat benefits through incentives for on-farm conservation practices and innovative partnerships, such as the Healthy Soils Initiative, a collaboration of state agencies working to align policies and programs to promote the development of healthy soils.

16.3     Support research and technical assistance, such as through the UC Cooperative Extension Climate Smart Agriculture Advisors program and resource conservation districts, to support farmers and ranchers with education about healthy soils, manure management, water and nutrient efficiency practices, on-farm recharge, drought adaptation, and land management changes.

Commitment to funding SWEEP – the state’s only on-farm water efficiency program –and prioritizing socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers

We were pleased to see the administration recommit to funding the State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program (SWEEP), despite what will be a gap year in funding this year due to Covid-19’s impact on the state budget, and prioritizing grants for farmers of color (p. 18):

2.3     Fund the State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program and prioritize grants for water-saving irrigation system improvements to socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers in basins considered high priority under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA).

One Disappointing Omission

Disappointingly, the Portfolio does not include any actions to improve implementation of the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program (ILRP), which is the state’s primary program to address water pollution associated with farm management. We found this omission to be quite odd for a portfolio appropriately focused on ensuring the human right to safe drinking water as part of its vision of water resilience.

As we noted in our first comment letter, current ILRP implementation may actually be worsening water quality and accelerating the loss of diversified family farms by: 1) disincentivizing diversified cropping systems and organic and healthy soils practices; and 2) disproportionately burdening small, diversified, organic, and disadvantaged farmers, who pose the least risk to water quality.

We asked that the portfolio address these issues by including an action for the State Water Resources Control Board to provide guidance to regional water boards on incentivizing healthy soils practices and providing regulatory relief for small, diversified, organic, and socially-disadvantaged farmers and ranchers who use healthy soils practices. We hope the administration and Water Board will reconsider this recommendation.

What Now?

With Covid-19’s impact on the state budget and legislative activity, we don’t expect much in the way of new policies, programs, or investments this year, but this portfolio does give us a helpful tool to hold the administration accountable to its vision over the next few years.

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