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Farmland consolidations could save water, promote solar

irrigation Lois

Sprinklers irrigate a crop along Zerker Road north of 7th Standard Road in Kern County in spring 2019.

Hopes are rising in the southern Central Valley that the farmland expected to be fallowed in coming years because of drought and groundwater restrictions won't sit idle but will instead be consolidated to make room for new land uses including solar power generation.

Efforts are underway locally to create a system for piecing together parcels that would allow investment at a scale large enough to support substantial photovoltaic solar arrays — or ranching or creation of natural habitat, whatever makes sense financially for landowners.

A key consideration in the discussions is making sure farmers don't lose their right to the groundwater beneath their fallowed land. A model now under development envisions a system of water credits and the involvement of a shared-benefit solar power organization.

The new modeling has come at a time of heightened optimism about the potential for large-scale solar farms in the Central Valley. Gov. Gavin Newsom has accelerated California's push for greater renewable energy production just as President-elect Joe Biden talks about creating federal policies that would encourage such investment.

NOT TOO CLOSE

But if ag and solar do indeed grow closer together, it might not be as close as some researchers have dreamed about.

A concept known as agrivoltaics envisions crops or livestock thriving in and among solar farms. It already happens elsewhere on a small scale and recently the U.S. Department of Energy set aside $7 million to support agrivoltaic pilot projects.

But the idea hasn't caught on in the Central Valley, for a few reasons. It's hard to maintain and harvest crops growing right next to solar panels, especially when using large, automated equipment. Kicking up dust doesn't help solar panels work at their best, either.

Plus, grazing cattle and goats tend to damage solar panels. And solar panels were never going to work among some of the area's most popular permanent crops: almonds, pistachios and citrus.

Observers say some agrivoltaics may be feasible locally in the case of cultivating bee forage but that it's unlikely to function on a scale as large as local farming operates.

"That idea never took off here," said Kern County's top planner, Lorelei Oviatt. "I think it's more of a small-scale, urban farming kind of idea."

She and others see greater potential in separating solar and ag while making them work together on another level.

SGMA IMPACT

A guiding principle has been to avoid a patchwork of productive and fallowed farmland to result from the state's imposition of pumping restrictions under the State Groundwater Management Act, better known as SGMA.

Certainly in the years ahead some land will have to come out of production because of SGMA — probably hundreds of thousands of acres. But rather than leave it to each farmer's whim on what goes fallow, the Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District is working on a way to coordinate financial interests to maximize shared opportunities.

Rosedale-Rio Bravo General Manager Eric Averett said the idea would be to create a community-level operation that would buy fallowed farmland and then give away to the community all the groundwater its aggregated property is entitled to use. That way all the water saved by converting the land use to solar benefits local farmers.

Averett said nothing has come together yet but progress is being made that could lead to solar or other new land uses within a year or two. He added the model already operates in other regions.

"I think the opportunities lie at the regional level and we need to scale those conversations up," he said.

OPEN OPTIONS

John Moore II, president of the Kern County Farm Bureau, was unconvinced agrivoltaics holds much potential locally, but he expressed interest in solar power as a reuse of fallowed farmland.

"Farmers and ranchers need options for their lands in the world of SGMA," he said by email.

Oviatt, the county planner, said she's aware of very large solar power projects looking for potential development sites in Kern and Kings counties. She expressed particular interest in the kind of water transfers Rosedale-Rio Bravo is looking at.

"Maybe this is the moment" for solar development in the valley, she said, adding local farmers "deserve a pathway to commercial-scale power."

Follow John Cox on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf