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Some California farmland being restored to natural state in hopes of lessening drought effects

Program plans how to restore water-starved California farmland back to its native habitat
Program plans how to restore water-starved California farmland back to its native habitat 04:08

TULARE COUNTY - In the face of California's megadrought, farmland across the state is at a crossroads.

Some land is now being repurposed to make sure it's viable for generations to come. We traveled to the Central Valley for a closer look at so-called "rewilding."

A withered and water-starved corn field is a snapshot of some of the farmland of the future.

"I always say we're a poster child for this issue, because we're not doing it right. We're taking too much water out of the ground," said Lindmore Irrigation District Executive Director Michael Hagman.

Hagman owns a 160-acre plot of fallowed agricultural land. He could soon be paid to take it out of production under the multi-benefit land repurposing program controlled by the department of conservation.

"With those $10 million grants, regions can begin to collaboratively plan for how they want to repurpose land and begin to provide payments to farmers to voluntarily implement those repurposing projects on their properties," said Anna schiller, program manager of climate-resilient water systems with the Environmental Defense Fund.

Among those types of repurposing projects is what some experts refer to as "rewilding", or restoring land to its native habitat. It's a bold approach that could make a big dent in the drought. 

"Studies estimate that upwards of a million acres of farmland are going to come out of production in the next 20 years or so, in order to balance our groundwater supplies and adapt to climate change," said Schiller.

While the idea of repurposing agricultural land is still taking shape in Tulare County, it's already showing promise 150 miles north, with the largest floodplain restoration project in California at Dos Rios Ranch.

"We've saved hundreds of thousands of gallons of water every single year, simply through the actions of this project," said Julie Rentner, president of the conservation organization River Partners.

The organization bought a 2,100-acre former dairy ranch outside of Modesto where alfalfa and winter wheat was also grown and transformed it with thousands of native grasses, shrubs, and trees.

"It conserves water by reducing how much evaporation actually happens here, right when you transfer lands from these thirsty crops into more drought tolerant native plants. They just use less water, which is exciting," said Rentner.

But this "living lab", which sits at the confluence of the San Joaquin and Tuolumne rivers, goes beyond water conservation.

"The floodplains here act as a shock absorber for flooding," said Rentner. "So, when snow melts and water is gushing off the mountains down here to the bottom of the valley, floodplains like this one act as a sponge and they just take all that flood water and they let it soak into the ground so it can be used later in the dry times."

After more than a decade of work and millions in funding, Dos Rios has also restored a booming ecosystem for salmon, rabbits, and migratory birds.

"Increased biodiversity provides a variety of ecosystem services, that to the degree that we restore habitat,...that restored habitat can do everything from reducing flood risks to sequestering carbon," said Buzz Thompson, professor of natural resources law at Stanford University. 

Back in Tulare County, Hagman admits he's anxious yet optimistic, knowing such a dramatic shift in farmland use is an adjustment but one that can ensure land viability for future generations. 

"We know it's going to be difficult. We've got to make changes," said Hagman. 

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