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California program pays farmers to fallow fields to preserve water amid drought

Farmers paid to fallow land to preserve water
Farmers paid to fallow land to preserve water 02:19

With climate change and drought, the state of California is incentivizing not using farmland or fallowing it. The move comes as irrigation in some areas is damaging residential wells.

Katie Staack farms 3,500 acres of almonds in Stanislaus County. She is one of the hundreds interested in the newly created LandFlex program.

"The program is really unique because it's focused on wet water, making sure we have wet water for our communities and aquifers, our ecosystems and farms," Aubrey Bettencourt said.

Bettencourt is with the Almond Alliance, a nonprofit trade association, and said it's an idea growing among farmers.

"It starts by looking at reducing immediate demand next to those watersheds to provide that instant relief to protect those wells from collapsing during this dry period," she said.

When surface water is short, groundwater demand increases. Farmers and wells have to go deeper, depleting the quantity and quality of water.

"The idea is to reduce the demand, so immediately stop the bleed, stop pumping," Bettencourt said.

To do this, the California Department of Water Resources is providing financial incentives of up to $2.5 million to farmers to fallow fields in areas called "critically overdrafted basins." Farmers are identified based on their proximity to drinking water wells that have gone dry or are in jeopardy of going dry.

"To become compliant and make sure we are protecting the water we do have, that's really important for the longevity of this program," Staack said.

She hopes the program plants a seed for sustainability.

"We have to focus statewide and make this easy implementation for every farmer," she said.

LandFlex is proving to be an environmental and financial solution for the agriculture industry in the Golden State.

"California ag sets the standard. We have decades of research of improving our water, improving bee health, and so I'm not surprised that almonds are leading the way again," Staack said.

Farmers will be paid to temporarily or permanently fallow per acre. Eligibility is limited to those with a three-year average adjusted gross income of $2.5 million or less. To find out how to apply go to the Department of Water Resources website.

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