The Department of Conservation is collecting input from Californians as it drafts guidelines for the new Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program it will launch with $50 million of state funding next spring.
DOC is collaborating with other state agencies including the Department of Water Resources and the Department of Food and Agriculture to create a framework for distributing grants to groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs), nonprofits and Native American tribes.
The projects that are funded will repurpose formerly irrigated agricultural land that is fallowed as part of a groundwater sustainability plan. Priority will be given to critically over-drafted basins. The program’s goals include reducing groundwater use, increasing recharge and providing wildlife habitat. Grants will go to partnerships and collaborations with a regional reach.
During a virtual workshop Tuesday, CDFA's deputy secretary for legislative affairs, Rachel O’Brien, said the partnership approach is welcome and that CDFA wants land conversion to have “minimal impacts on agricultural productivity and local communities.”
DOC’s draft plan for the program calls for a system of block grants and separate, smaller, tribal grants. A third bucket of money would be for a statewide support entity. Block grants could go to GSAs, public entities, nonprofits or watermasters tasked with implementing groundwater sustainability plans.
Grantees would partner with landowners or local groups. Proposals would need to include a repurposing plan as well as project development and permitting; implementation; outreach, education and training; and monitoring. Grantees are expected to show a 50% match for the implementation part of their proposals.
A regional block grant recipient, for example, could work with landowners who would “implement land repurposing projects that provide public benefits on their properties,” said Shanna Atherton, associate environmental planner at DOC.
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The requirement of a 50% match stood out to some workshop participants as a barrier for nonprofits and other smaller prospective grant applicants. Other attendees expressed concern that the timeline currently asks for projects that will last 10 years, which might leave open the possibility of development or other water-intensive uses after that decade. The department also was told that existing repurposing plans should be tapped to minimize redundant planning.
Ideas generated in small breakout rooms and in a large group discussion will be compiled as the process continues, Atherton told the 90 or so participants.
Another workshop with the same format is scheduled for Thursday at 5 p.m. PST. DOC plans to take public comment on its proposal from Dec. 20 to Jan. 31, 2022, and publish the final guidelines on Feb. 4. The hope is to review applications quickly and award grants in April. Staff at DOC are already open to hearing from prospective applicants who want to start drafting proposals.
Atherton acknowledged the “very tight turnaround” and said that’s inspired by the desire for grantees to make full use of the available funds. Many of the workshop’s participants said the department has a relatively small amount of money for a major change in land use.
“Hopefully we can prove this concept out” in this first funding round, “so this can be an ongoing and much larger program in the future,” said Keali’i Bright, assistant director of DOC’s Division of Land Resource Protection.
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