Almond growers learn about their ‘largest challenge’


Issue Date: May 22, 2019
By Christine Souza
Stacie Ann Silva of New Current Water and Land speaks to farmers at an Almond Board of California seminar on water topics, held at the International Agri-Center in Tulare.
Photo/Christine Souza

Because trying to understand and comply with a multitude of water regulations takes up a greater proportion of farmers' time and attention, the Almond Board of California invited farmers and water specialists to a Central Valley seminar intended to help clarify topics including groundwater sustainability, management of salts and nitrates, new flow requirements under the state's bay-delta plan and the future of water in California.

The session, "Navigating the Waters," drew a crowd of about 150 farmers to the International Agri-Center in Tulare last week, where attendees heard from water-agency leaders, state water officials, farmers and others on a range of topics with the goal of helping almond growers make informed water decisions.

Almond Board of California President and CEO Richard Waycott said water topics involve "many issues and sub-issues."

"This may be the largest challenge that we've faced in our history, but I do think we have the smarts and wherewithal to get 'er done," Waycott said.

With groundwater sustainability plans to be developed by 2020 for critically overdrafted basins and 2022 for other high- and medium-priority basins as required under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, bringing groundwater into balance is a primary concern for growers. Ellen Hanak, water policy center director with the Public Policy Institute of California, described groundwater as "one of the key challenges for the valley," adding, "there is much at stake for the region's economy, public health and the environment as to how these challenges are tackled."

Trying to identify promising solutions to increase flexibility, Hanak said, a recent Public Policy Institute report discussed approaches to increase flexibility and give people opportunities to be creative with the water resource, such as groundwater recharge areas that are also good for habitat, capturing and storing more local storm runoff, building or expanding surface storage and reoperating the system to better coordinate with storage.

Tracking many of the groundwater sustainability agencies in the state, Stacie Ann Silva, resource analyst with Fresno-based New Current Water and Land, discussed water markets related to SGMA. Silva suggested groundwater markets will be "sub-basin, valley and California-wide," noting that they differ greatly from surface-water markets. Once a groundwater right is quantified, it is monetizable, Silva said.

Regarding how groundwater markets will work within an individual GSA, Silva said, "You need to know if they are going to allow you to trade it and what kinds of water are you going to be allowed to be trading," adding for the most part, "groundwater markets are shaping up to be one-off, one-time transactions."

Fresno County farmer Don Cameron described recharge projects on his farm, including in almonds and other crops.

"We've spent nearly 30 years trying to find a strategy and find a way to bring floodwater on-farm," Cameron said. "It's been an uphill battle and it takes a lot of money."

Cameron, who chairs the State Board of Food and Agriculture, estimated he spends 70% of his time on water issues.

In discussing nitrates and salinity in groundwater, Daniel Cozad, executive director of the Central Valley Salinity Coalition, said farmers in the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program are working on best management practices for nitrates. Additionally, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board adopted a stakeholder-driven Central Valley-wide Salt and Nitrate Management Plan to implement long-term solutions for enhanced water quality and economic sustainability. The plan is to go before the State Water Resources Control Board sometime this year for final adoption.

"The approach is: How can we keep the stakeholders—farmers, communities and industries in the Central Valley—vibrant and working, while we figure out how to solve these other issues, primarily salt and nitrate?" Cozad said.

The group also heard from state water board member Sean Maguire, who described being a regulator as a vast responsibility, because the board "is responsible for protecting and monitoring water quality for all surface water and groundwater throughout the state, drinking water for all Californians, and allocating water for beneficial use, including growing crops."

California should be working to increase water storage, both surface and groundwater, Maguire said, adding that the state should also capture storm flows, do more on-farm recharge and look at new technologies.

Related to voluntary agreements being developed as potential alternatives to the state board's unimpaired-flows plan for San Joaquin River tributaries, Maquire said a high-level framework was released last December, and additional details have been added to the agreements during the last four months.

"It's an exciting opportunity that hopefully will set us on a good path for protecting and managing water in the bay-delta watershed from here on out," Maquire said. "It is difficult to say what the outcome will be, but because we have so many folks still at the table engaged in robust conversation, I think it is really encouraging."

Kion Kashefi, managing director/agronomist for Anteris Agronomics of Modesto, a firm that provides farmers with compliance-related services for water regulations, traveled to Tulare to attend the water session.

"It was refreshing to have a member of the state water board at the meeting, who said, 'We don't know everything, but we are willing to at least listen so that we can work together,'" Kashefi said.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.