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Identifying Intersections: Opportunities for Collaboration

Reflecting upon the first weeks of my service term with Sustainable Conservation, a recurrent theme has been identifying intersections. Sustainable Conservation’s work centers collaborative efforts. So much so that the “Sustainable” of their name is in reference to the types of solutions they aim to implement. Building bridges between parties on initially opposing sides of a conflict allows for solutions which outlast the organization’s involvement in the matter at hand. The description for my role here made it clear that the predominant focus of my time with the organization would revolve around finding incidents of overlap between the regulation and management of groundwater quality and quantity. Counterintuitively, the articles of legislation which mandate the regulation of groundwater quality and quantity are wholly separate and apply to agencies with little to no correspondence. Specifically, these are the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) and the Central Valley Salinity Alternatives for Long-Term Sustainability program (CV-SALTS), focusing on water quantity and quality respectively. Though both SGMA and CV-SALTS are historic measures given that the management of water resources in California had never been regulated until SGMA, if not effectively implemented, the future of California’s water isn’t looking great. Hence, Sustainable Conservation’s interest in the matter and exigency for this fellowship position.

Quick aside - One thing that I’ve quickly learned in my time with the organization thus far is that even describing these issues is a challenge upon itself. As you may have noticed from the paragraph above, even as I write this, I feel uncertain about how to accurately convey the complexity of the issues at hand.

The relatively recent shift in thinking towards holistic ecosystem management practices has made this separation evermore evident. Combined, groundwater quality and quantity are collectively known as groundwater condition. CV-SALTS seeks to address groundwater quality by establishing Nutrient Management Zones or NMZs which have the power to enforce restrictions on fertilizer applications which lead to nitrate contamination. SGMA is designed to address groundwater overdraft in and around irrigated agricultural lands by establishing Groundwater Sustainability Agencies or GSAs. Each GSA is assigned to a sub-basin where they are authorized to oversee groundwater allocation to agricultural operations. A key detail of SGMA I should note is the list of 6 undesirable effects of groundwater pumping outlined by the legislation, the most pertinent of which is decreased water quality for communities dependent upon groundwater. This is the seed from which my service term project will grow.

Furthermore, soil health is intimately bound to groundwater condition. Healthy soil management practices retain more water and facilitate the replenishment of aquifers, significant benefits for the longer-term water security of California’s Central Valley. Thus, another intersection with SGMA is identified. One such soil management practice is to implement cover cropping, which is to not leave fields bare during the winter by planting some other crop. The benefits of cover cropping are well known but the practice has come to be questioned by growers in the valley. This apprehension originates from misunderstandings in how GSAs will measure the water use of growers within their jurisdictions. Understandably, a grower would rather not be penalized for exceeding their allocation for watering a crop of no financial value relative to their cash crop. To clarify the situation to propose a clear, unified message to GSAs regarding their method for recording water consumption, Sustainable Conservation organized a convening between researchers, technical assistance agencies, and growers. The convening took place October 17th at UC Merced, over 60 participants came, and it was a success! The discussions I heard and took part in that day truly highlighted the significance of organizing collaborative efforts to me. It was incredible to be in such a knowledgeable environment, I learned so much more than I could possibly recount here. But one observation which highlighted how collaboration can drastically improve efficiency; There were researchers studying the same acres of the same farm for the same reasons that had never even been in contact before!

Currently, we are working on consolidating notes from that convening to inform the discourse of the next convening on the topic which is scheduled for November 30th. This past meeting was more so to establish a base of knowledge on strictly the ecological processes at work, whereas the next meeting will be about the technology used by GSAs to measure water consumption.

In conclusion, intersectionality is inevitable in earth’s systems because despite our conceptualizations, it is all one system, thus its management cannot be siloed. Holistic consideration is the path to a sustainable future.

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