California is home to epic water rights battles, including one between farmers and environmentalists over use of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Environmentalists claim the health of the Delta is threatened by overdraft. One of the threats facing the Mokelumne River, which starts high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and flows into the Delta, is overdraft. The Mokelumne River provides water for the 1.4 million people in California’s East Bay. The Mokelumne River also provides water to irrigate over 800,000 acres of crops in the Central San Joaquin Valley. It is only fitting that the Mokelumne Watershed Environmental Benefits Program received a $372,000 Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) last month from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The USDA awarded the grant to Sustainable Conservation, in partnership with Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Environmental Incentives, Protected Harvest and the Sierra Nevada Conservancy to develop a pilot program that measures environmental benefits in the Mokelumne River Watershed. One important aspect of the Program is that it will, hopefully, attract funding to pay farmers, ranchers and foresters to use environmentally beneficial practices such as water purification, erosion control and wildlife habitat.
The Program, according to a press release, will develop “uniform standards and payment mechanisms that allow private utilities, government agencies, communities, foundations and nonprofits to pay landowners and land managers to manage their land in ways that benefit the environment.”
The USDA website describes the Program as creating a “regional ecosystem market that invests in improving water availability, water quality, habitat viability and carbon sequestration, and measures its benefits.”
An EDF blog post claimed the program will “raise investor confidence in restoration by showing the ‘bang for the buck’ of each investment.” The blog post pointed out that the Mokelumne Watershed is “representative of many California watersheds,” and as such “there is huge potential to replicate it throughout California and possibly beyond.”
“Typically farmers and ranchers are paid to grow crops and raise livestock,” said Ashley Boren, executive director of Sustainable Conservation. “But many of these individuals who manage their land responsibly provide important services that benefit nature and human well-being. We need to create ways to pay farmers and ranchers for these services.”
“The grants will help to spur creativity and problem-solving to benefit conservation-minded farmers and ranchers,” said USDA NRCS Chief Dave White.
The USDA is investing almost $22.5 million in grants, through CIGs, in 40 states. Other CIG awards include a $481,665 award to EDF to improve the water quality of the Upper Mississippi River Basin by designing modeling tools and engaging stakeholders, and $200,000 to the Ecosystem Management Research Institute in California and Utah to develop and apply a web-based sagebrush restoration planning tool.
Photo: Flickr user, John E. Robertson