Padilla Introduces Legislation to Facilitate Voluntary Agricultural Land Repurposing to Bolster Water Supply

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, U.S. Senator Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), Chair of the Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water, and Wildlife, introduced the Voluntary Agricultural Land Repurposing Act, legislation that would build drought resiliency and reduce water use by providing federal funding to states and tribes that work to voluntarily repurpose certain agricultural lands. 

Increasing water scarcity throughout the West demands widespread changes to secure our water supply. The Colorado River Basin’s water shortage, the Great Salt Lake’s decline to record low levels, and California’s subsidence due to groundwater overdraft in the Central Valley are just a few of the many examples of long-term challenges demanding changes in our water use.

In California, it is estimated that at least 750,000 to 1 million acres of farmland will need to come out of development due to water scarcity. If this land transition is not proactively managed, it could result in increased dust, pests and weeds, and widespread economic impacts in our communities. In response, the California State Legislature established the Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program to help regions repurpose agricultural land while providing community health, economic well-being, water supply, habitat, renewable energy, and climate benefits​. Repurposing certain agricultural lands can help minimize the economic impacts of droughts and create new public benefits while ensuring our most productive agricultural lands remain productive.  

“Agriculture is essential to California’s economy and allows us to put food on the table for families across the country, but the climate crisis and historic droughts require us to adapt to long-term water scarcity. My Voluntary Agricultural Land Repurposing Act will provide another tool for communities to support the collaborative planning and voluntary actions already underway to reduce water use in the West,” said Senator Padilla. “This legislation embraces state and local ingenuity and long-term land use planning while ensuring that our agricultural economies remain vibrant for years to come.”

Specifically, the bill would:

  • Modernize the Bureau of Reclamation’s emergency drought authority to authorize funding for states and tribes to run voluntary and multibenefit land repurposing programs. States would match the federal grant at a 50% cost-share. Eligible state-run programs must be basin-scale, reduce consumptive water use, repurpose irrigated agricultural land for at least 10 years, and provide one or more other measurable benefits to the environment or community, including restoring habitat or flood plains connection to streams or rivers, creating dedicated recharge areas, creating parks or recreation areas, facilitating renewable energy projects, and other listed uses. 
  • Amend the Bureau of Reclamation’s WaterSMART program to authorize funding for the multibenefit land repurposing activities described above. This would allow additional water users and partners to engage in multibenefit land repurposing programs while states work to stand up state-run programs.
  • Prioritize programs that provide direct benefits to disadvantaged communities or were developed through a multi-stakeholder planning process.

This legislation is endorsed by the Environmental Defense Fund, Trout Unlimited, the State Water Contractors, Self-Help Enterprises, Audubon, The Native Seed Group, California Native Seed Supply Collaborative, Arroyo Pasajero Mutual Water Company, East Turlock Groundwater Sustainability Agency, East Kaweah Groundwater Sustainability Agency, Woolf Farming, and McConnel Farms.

“We applaud Senator Padilla for introducing legislation that will give landowners options for how to manage limited water supplies in ways that can minimize economic impacts and create real benefits for communities and ecosystems,” said Ann Hayden, Associate Vice President, Climate Resilient Water Systems at the Environmental Defense Fund.

“Trout Unlimited has worked with cattle ranchers across the West to sustain their operations while voluntarily reducing their irrigated footprint. The Voluntary Agricultural Land Repurposing Act provides support for this kind of locally led, voluntary, compensated action that can help demonstrate long-term agriculture and water sustainability, a needed drought-response tool. Trout Unlimited supports the Voluntary Agricultural Land Repurposing Act,” said Sara Porterfield, Trout Unlimited’s Western Water Policy Advisor.

“In a time of climate adaptation and SGMA implementation, this bill provides another option for landowners to sustainably manage their lands to the benefit of their communities,” said Jennifer Pierre, General Manager of the State Water Contractors.

“As a Community Development organization serving California’s drought-impacted San Joaquin Valley, Self-Help Enterprises commends Senator Padilla for advocating for this legislation that can help address public health needs caused by drought, provide public benefits to disadvantaged communities, and create short- and long-term groundwater demand reduction,” said Eddie Ocampo, Community Sustainability Director at Self-Help Enterprises.

Senator Padilla was recently named as Chair of the Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water, and Wildlife, where he has led efforts to increase our drought resiliency. Padilla led a letter to Agriculture Secretary Vilsack to push the USDA to use their mandate from the Inflation Reduction Act to address drought-related issues, including enhancing groundwater recharge, reducing salinity, improving irrigation efficiencies, reducing groundwater pumping, and utilizing organic practices. He also joined a bipartisan group of fourteen Western senators in sending a letter urging the USDA to ensure that its programs are funded and administered to more effectively address the dire drought conditions throughout the West. Padilla secured a historic $4 billion in funding for drought resiliency in the Inflation Reduction Act to stabilize water supplies along the Colorado River, including for the Salton Sea. He has also introduced the Water Reuse and Resiliency Act to boost funding for the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Pilot Program for Alternative Water Source Projects grants program for groundwater recharge, stormwater capture and reuse, and water recycling projects.

Full text of the bill is available here


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