Developing Renewable Energy While Protecting the Farms That Grow Our Food

March 20, 2023 in CFWC Blog

Developing Renewable Energy While Protecting the Farms That Grow Our Food

On its web site, The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) says it conducts hundreds of surveys every year and prepares reports covering virtually every aspect of U.S. agriculture. The agency reports the facts on American agriculture, “…that are needed by people working in and depending upon U.S. agriculture.”

People that work in agriculture or that depend on agriculture includes pretty much everyone on the planet. Excellent soils and a Mediterranean climate make California one of the most productive agricultural centers in the world, allowing the state to produce two-thirds of the nation’s fruits and nuts, and one-third of its vegetables. Not making the best use of this unique agricultural resource would be a big mistake.

One of the USDA reports says that between 1997 and 2017, in just 20 years’ time, California lost 1 million acres of irrigated farmland. Much of that land was converted to urban or suburban uses and the trend will continue as the state’s population continues to grow.

But population growth isn’t the only threat to California’s position as a world leader in food production. Society’s values have evolved in the last half-century to place a greater importance on priorities other than food production and we can see the results unfolding before our eyes. All too often, we begin to take for granted the basics that become commonplace. COVID-related supply chain disruptions and the war in Ukraine were stark reminders that food security can be fleeting.

A significant challenge facing the state is developing the massive amount of new solar facilities planned over the next two decades while protecting the farmland we depend on as a domestic source of food.

Solar facility on the edge of farmland, Kern County Source: iStock

In 2018, the California legislature passed SB 100, the “100 Percent Clean Energy Act of 2018”. SB 100 sets a 2045 target date of supplying all retail electricity sold in California, as well as state agency electricity needs, with renewable and zero-carbon energy resources. This new electricity will come from solar, wind, and geothermal sources. Of the three sources, new solar facilities are expected to account for 81.1 percent of the total. New wind sources are second at 18.8 percent, and new geothermal is a miniscule 0.1 percent.

According to summary of the 2021 SB 100 Joint Agency Report, California will need to add about 70 gigawatts (or 70,000 megawatts) of new commercial solar generation by 2045 to meet the legislative target. The California Energy Commission (CEC) says it requires between seven and 10 acres of solar to generate 1 megawatt of electricity, meaning the state will need 490,000 acres to 700,000 acres of land to generate the 70 gigawatts of solar energy. But does that mean productive farmland will be the only locations for new solar facilities? It doesn’t have to be.

Many tens of thousands of acres of farmland have already been fallowed due to a lack or water or completely retired because of soil quality and drainage concerns. These areas could provide much of the land needed for new solar facilities without being forced to convert producing farms to meet the acreage demand.

A staff report, presented in October to the CEC titled, “Land Use Screens for Electric System Planning,” (3.4 mb PDF) identifies Base Exclusions, or areas where solar cannot be built. Those areas include population centers, military installations, tribal lands, land set aside for environmental protection, mines, and more. When all excluded areas are taken into account, much of the remaining allowable land for solar production is in primarily agricultural areas, including much of the Central Valley, the Salinas, Imperial, and Palo Verde valleys, and some high desert areas from west of Lancaster to Victorville.

Areas excluded from energy productionSolar resource potential (CEC)

It is not surprising that there is significant interest in the land potentially fallowed due to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). In its report, “Solar Energy and Groundwater in the San Joaquin Valley,” the Public Policy Institute of California says that, under SGMA, water users will be required to bring groundwater basins into balance over the next two decades. The report says, “In the San Joaquin Valley, this will likely mean taking more than 500,000 acres of agricultural land out of intensive irrigated production”.

These 500,000 acres that might be retired to meet SGMA goals are in addition to the land that has already gone out of production in the Valley.

It is natural to assume that the CEC would look toward potential farmland conversion as a result of SGMA for sites to locate new energy projects. But it is important to remember that much of the farmland expected to go out of production was at one time sustainably farmed using groundwater resources because adequate surface water supplies helped replenish the aquifer. As a result of periodic droughts, inadequate infrastructure, and water policies that limit surface water deliveries, the declining level of surface water delivered over the last 30 years has contributed directly to current levels of overdraft.

California’s intent should be to build solar facilities on previously retired land and, if additional land is required, to minimize additional retirement and only use land that will be fallowed because of SGMA, as an example. Unless California finds a way to use solar development in some way to support the remaining agricultural land, the question will remain of who will grow the food that feeds the world.

Global population reached 8 billion in November of 2022. At the same time, the 2022 Global Agricultural Productivity (GAP) Report by Virginia Tech College of Agricultural and Life Sciences indicated that global food production is trending 35 percent below the rate needed to meet global food demands in 2050. That means developing countries will face more starvation, and countries like the U.S. will continue to face higher and higher food prices as we compete for more limited supplies in the global market.

Food production growth, 2022 GAP Report

The amount of disposable income Americans spend on food has been severely impacted by inflation, which reached a 40-year high with consumer prices up 9.1 percent over the year ended June 2022. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that inflation pressures will continue through 2023, increasing the cost of food consumers purchase by an additional 4.5 percent to 10.1 percent on top of price increases they have already experienced. With continued global unrest, such as the war in Ukraine, and needless conversion of fertile agricultural land, it is likely that trends like this will continue.

The rate of change in percentage of food price costs. Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What is the answer? The CEC says it will make every effort to site new solar facilities on the least productive land possible, but solar facilities depend on transmission capabilities to move electricity from where it is generated to where it will be used. Existing transmission lines aren’t currently in all of the areas the CEC identified for potential solar development. That means there is a potential loss of higher value farmland beyond the boundaries of SGMA’s footprint or previously retired farmland where we could see solar facilities taking the place of farms that grow our food.  The CEC can work to minimize this by talking to local planners and agricultural advisors, such as county agricultural commissioners and Cooperative Extension specialists. Those experts can provide valuable advice when decisions are being made on where to site new solar facilities.

Throughout California’s history, development has shaped the kind of state in which we live. Developing new sources of renewable energy is a good thing and deserves support. However, we shouldn’t try to fix our energy problem by creating an even bigger food problem.

There is broad consensus on the need to capture more water when its raining

January 25, 2023 in CFWC Blog

News outlets across the state and the nation are pointing out that California has dragged its feet making the changes to water storage and regulations that will help the state adjust to climate change and the wetter wet years and hotter dry years it produces.


San Francisco Chronicle

Californians approved billions for new water storage. Why hasn’t it gotten built?

San Jose Mercury News / Bay Area News Group

California stormwater storage limited by 2-inch fish

Los Angeles Times

California has lots of catching up to do on flood management — with or without climate change

Orange County Register

Harvesting the deluge is an opportunity for Californians

Bakersfield Californian

State laws hamper flood flow storage but one San Joaquin Valley water district cut through the red tape. Can others follow?


Storms tell California to upgrade its plumbing

New York Times

In a Drought, California Is Watching Water Wash Out to Sea


Storms Show California’s Outdated Plumbing Puts Economy at Risk

San Diego Union Tribune

Suddenly, water is everywhere. So are questions about saving more of it.


Our Food Supply at Risk: White Paper on the Importance of Alfalfa Production in the American West

December 7, 2022 in CFWC Blog

With drought conditions continuing to blanket the Western U.S., and farmers struggling to find adequate water supplies, competing interests are pressuring the federal government to cut the water supply farmers are using to grow our food, including alfalfa, which is a foundational food chain crop.

In response, the Family Farm Alliance and California Farm Water Coalition have produced a White Paper titled, “Our Food Supply at Risk; The Importance of Alfalfa Production in the American West” detailing the valuable role alfalfa plays as a principal feed source for the nation’s livestock and diary industries, its environmental benefits, and contribution to effective drought management.

Family Farm Alliance Executive Director, Dan Keppen, said reducing the acreage devoted to alfalfa may seem like an easy fix to save water, but a decision to do so has bigger ramifications for our nation’s food supply.

“Alfalfa is grown as livestock feed for the beef and dairy industries, both of which contribute to a balanced diet, including high protein foods, such as beef, milk, and milk products, such as yogurt, butter, cheese, ice cream, and cottage cheese,” said Keppen. “At a time when consumers are facing record inflation and sticker shock every time they to go to the grocery store, it makes no sense to aggravate the problem and drive prices even higher by cutting out a vital component of our food supply.

Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition, said that Arizona and California lead the nation in per-acre production of alfalfa.

“With crop yields that are double the per-acre yields in most other states, the ability to make-up lost production from Arizona and California is very unlikely, which would lead to shortages, higher feed costs for producers, and the loss of more family farms when so many are already struggling,” he said.

The report outlines many of the additional benefits that come from alfalfa production, including enhanced soil health because of deep rooting and the nitrogen alfalfa naturally adds to the soil during its growth cycle. This reduces the amount of chemical fertilizers that have to be used to grow crops that follow alfalfa during crop rotation.

Alfalfa also contributes to the health of pollinators, such as bees, when it grows because of the crop’s prolific flower production. Bees use alfalfa for honey production, more of which comes from alfalfa farms than any other source in the U.S.

And alfalfa is an efficient water user, producing a crop year-round in warmer climates, but is also able to survive droughts as well as intentional “dry down” to make water available for other so-called high-value crops, including fruits, nuts, and vegetables, that face drought-driven water shortages.

Abandoning Established Water Law Does Nothing to Produce or Save One Drop of Water and Puts Our Food Supply at Risk

August 30, 2022 in CFWC Blog, Water Rights

In times of crisis, drastic measures born out of panic almost always make things worse, and the same applies to dealing with California’s current drought.

There is no doubt that people, farms, our communities, and the environment are suffering. And there is a theory being floated among the state’s water bureaucracy that if we abandon our long-established system of water rights, our problems will be solved.

They won’t. Water rights are not the cause of California’s changing weather patterns and neither discarding this long-established law, nor fighting the legal battles that would result from trying to do so, will move, store, or create one drop of water. 

Water rights provide stability during dry times

Water rights, a form of property rights, lend some predictability to water users in times of scarcity. Cities, businesses, farms, and rural communities all need some idea of available supply during a drought in order to plan and adjust.

In addition, it’s important to understand that even under existing water rights, regulators have sufficient flexibility to alter water deliveries in critical situations. In 2021 and 2022 those powers were used to make drastic cuts to most farms and some cities, with many farms receiving none of their normal allocation.

A safe food supply is a matter of national security

Under the state constitution, all water, no matter the rights attached to it, must be put to “beneficial use.” We argue that maintaining a healthy, abundant, and safe food supply is also a matter of national security. Sixty percent of our nation’s fruits, nuts and vegetables come from California and that production cannot simply be moved to other states. If we abandon California farms, we’re accepting food shortages, higher prices, and more imports from foreign countries, many with significantly lower safety standards. To put it in perspective, for every acre that is left unplanted because of a lack of irrigation water, it is the equivalent of 50,000 salads that would not be available to consumers.

And while most calls to eliminate water rights are aimed at farmers, upending the system would impact all Californians.

Some of the most senior water rights holders are water agencies in major metropolitan areas such as San Francisco and other Bay Area cities serving more than 1.8 million Californians.

We can store more water in wet years without harm

The inconvenient truth for all Californians is that our state has not moved quickly enough to deal with the impacts of climate change. For some time, climate scientists have been telling us that precipitation in the form of rain instead of snow is the new normal. That means we must build additional storage for both above and below ground water in order to capture water when Mother Nature delivers it. A recent policy brief by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) echoed the need for more storage saying, “. . .it is possible to do a better job of storing water during wet years—both above and below ground—without doing harm.”

The kind of projects needed include new or expanded reservoirs that can serve as environmentally-friendly water storage. New canals and pipelines would help distribute floodwater to areas in California’s Central Valley and also help recharge groundwater basins. PPIC estimates increasing storage could allow us to capture between 400,000 and 800,000 acre-feet of water each year, enough to serve hundreds of thousands of homes for a year or grow literally millions of salads.

There is money to pay for projects right now

And we have the money to do this. The federal government passed a huge infrastructure bill last year and California’s government currently has a $100 billion surplus.

Difficult times call for balanced, collaborative solutions, not drastic measures like upending water rights, which solves nothing and could make things worse for all Californians.

Guest Blog: CA water board readopts precedent-setting groundwater regs

June 29, 2022 in CFWC Blog

By: Western Livestock Journal

Family farmers and ranchers in Siskiyou County in far-northern California will continue to face unprecedented groundwater and surface water curtailments this summer and next if the drought continues. On June 21, the California State Water Resources Control Board readopted a drought emergency regulation for the Scott River and Shasta River watersheds that continues severe curtailments based on new minimum flow requirements in the Scott and Shasta rivers.

Some amendments were made to the existing emergency regulation, which was put in place by the water board last September. According to the Scott Valley Agriculture Water Alliance (AgWA), a local grassroots communication group that formed in response to the emergency regulations, the adopted changes added some flexibility to the previous regulation.

Theodora Johnson, spokesperson for AgWA, said water board staff have been “very willing to talk to us and make fine-tuning changes.” But, she added, the readopted regulation still contains the major aspects that threaten the businesses of the small, multi-generational farms and ranches in the Scott and Shasta valleys.

“The regulation still curtails both groundwater and surface water irrigation if certain flow objectives are not met on either river,” Johnson said. “While the flow objectives for the Shasta got lowered, the Scott River objectives remain unachievably high, setting us up for curtailments. We expect the hammer to drop no later than next month.”

Helping fish?

The regulation is allegedly in response to distressed fish populations. However, as noted by Sari Sommarstrom, a retired watershed consultant from Scott Valley, fish in the Scott River have actually been doing quite well, despite the fact that the water board’s summer flow objectives haven’t been met for the better part of a decade.

Sommarstrom, who commented at the meeting, emphasized the unreasonableness of the regulation.

“As far as I can understand, we’re the only place in California where all ag wells are subject to curtailment, despite Scott Valley not being overdrafted—unlike the San Joaquin and Salinas—despite most ag production wells being addressed in our Scott decree and despite pretty good natural runs of salmon,” Sommarstrom said.

Sommarstrom, a founding member of AgWA, also told the board this spring’s near-record-breaking coho salmon outmigration from the Scott River was not aided by last September’s curtailments—contrary to agency claims.

“Saying the 2020 coho run benefited from these regulations does not match up with the life cycle needs. The regs didn’t kick in until mid-September. It was really last summer—before the regs kicked in—that was the most stressful part for those juvenile rearing coho.”

Communication wins

Sommarstrom noted that the water board staff has been very communicative, but she said, “There’s so much info that we’re not communicating well on, still. The assumption in the regs is that there are fish everywhere, all the time, and that’s not true in the system.”

Johnson and Sommarstrom both noted that one water board member, Vice Chair Dorene D’Adamo, was particularly attentive to AgWA’s concerns.

“We were really grateful for Vice Chair D’Adamo’s addition of a resolution that recognizes our county’s locally-developed Groundwater Sustainability Plan, and the (University of California) Davis-developed hydrologic model that guided that plan,” Sommarstrom said.

“When this emergency reg was adopted last year, it didn’t even recognize the efforts we’ve been making for over a decade to improve our groundwater and flow situation in the Shasta and Scott valleys. We hope the new resolution is a sign that the water board is willing to work with the county and local groups to come up with solutions that are less punitive and more proactive on the supply side of the situation.”

Additional language proposed by D’Adamo did support one supply-side action: “groundwater recharge” permitting.

“That was encouraging to see,” Johnson said. “But the fact remains that the burden is currently being placed 100 percent on our irrigators to reach the flow levels demanded by the water board. We are a snowmelt-dependent system with no dams or big reservoirs. We simply can’t reach those flow levels if we don’t get adequate precipitation. Unless we find ways to hold onto water in the winter and spring when flows are high, we won’t reach the levels they want on the Scott. And the family rancher is the whipping boy.”

Groundwater jurisdiction

An ongoing lawsuit in Shasta Valley is currently challenging the assumption of connectivity between groundwater and surface water in the Big Springs Irrigation District. The water board’s jurisdiction only covers surface water and “interconnected” groundwater.

During the meeting, D’Adamo raised the issue of the water board’s jurisdiction over all groundwater. “I have to say that this is an area that’s troubled me from the start, but I understand the need for us to include groundwater, and I’ve spent a lot of time with our staff really wanting to make sure I understand our authorities and that we are not overreaching.”

She asked a water board attorney at the meeting whether future information obtained regarding connectivity could change the water board’s approach of regulating all the water rights in the Scott and Shasta valleys. The attorney’s response was noncommittal.

Major components of the regulation are the following:

• The 30 percent reduction option: For those wishing to continue irrigating with groundwater after a curtailment is issued, the water board is allowing for individual plans that reduce irrigation by 30 percent. Many ranches have signed up for these plans. However, half of Scott Valley’s irrigated acreage (about 15,000 acres) doesn’t qualify under this type of plan.

• Limited surface water diversions during a curtailment could be allowed. There is a “tributary-wide” plan option that would allow limited surface water use after a curtailment, but this option has not yet been attempted in Scott Valley. It would require coordination between diverters on a given ditch or tributary, coordination with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and steady monitoring.

• Livestock watering out of ditches in the nonirrigation season is severely limited, although there are exceptions. AgWA argues that using earthen ditches during the nonirrigation season—in a way that doesn’t harm fish—serves an important function of recharging groundwater and should be encouraged.

• Livestock drinking water is limited during a curtailment. The max allowable use is 15 gallons/day for cattle and 1.5 gallons for sheep. AgWA has consistently argued these amounts are not adequate, especially in hot weather. Water board staff did add language to allow livestock twice the maximum level when temperatures exceed 90 F.

• Penalties of $500 per day for violations are still in place. Some farmers and ranchers have already suffered penalties, in some instances because of accidental misfilings of paperwork.

It’s hard to determine how curtailments and the 30 percent plans will affect Scott Valley this year. In Shasta Valley, several century-old ranches have already gone out of business due to the regulations, and it’s unknown how long the regulations will be in place.

“As long as Gov. (Gavin) Newsom (D) keeps the emergency drought proclamation in place, we’re likely to see readoption of some sort of regulation every year,” Johnson said. “We’re not sure how long many of our historic family farms and ranches can withstand that.” — Scott Valley Agriculture Water Alliance for WLJ