As Californians brace themselves for the impacts of drought, an advisory group of irrigation experts and farmers recently released some timely recommendations to update the state’s sole on-farm water and energy efficiency program, the State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program (SWEEP). Created to assist farmers during the previous drought and address climate change, SWEEP funds on-farm water and energy efficiency projects like micro irrigation, advanced irrigation monitoring systems, and solar-powered irrigation pumps.
SWEEP: Many Benefits to Farmers & Communities, Demand Outpaces Funding
Since 2014, SWEEP has awarded $81 million to 800 projects covering 137,000 acres, resulting in an estimated 117,000 acre-feet of annual water savings and 81,000 metric tons CO2 annual emissions reductions. These projects have also had important co-benefits for farmers. Pao Yang, a farmer and SWEEP recipient in Fresno county, estimates his annual $8,000 energy bill was cut in half after installing his SWEEP project. His new irrigation system also reduces weed pressure and associated labor costs by delivering water more precisely to his crops. Not surprisingly, SWEEP is a highly popular program among farmers, with demand outpacing available funding by a 3-1 margin.
SWEEP projects also benefit surrounding agricultural communities by reducing nitrate contamination in groundwater from applying water and nutrients more efficiently and by reducing air pollution from replacing outdated diesel irrigation pumps with cleaner alternatives.
California Returns to Drought: What’s Different this Time?
Although some things about this drought may feel the same as they did back in 2014, there are some important differences in terms of the pace and scale of the drought’s onset, its regional impacts, and the state’s reservoir and streamflow conditions. For helpful summaries of those differences, check out “California’s Latest Drought in 4 Charts” from the Public Policy Institute of California’s blog and an article from CalMatters answering the question “How unprepared is California for 2021’s drought?”
The policy and regulatory environment have also changed considerably in the seven years since SWEEP was created. Farmers are facing a complex new regulatory environment, from implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) and the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program (ILRP) to the new Central Valley Salinity Alternatives for Long-Term Sustainability (CV-SALTS) Plan. These changes have made resource management more challenging, and require the need for both efficient and flexible on-farm water management systems. Additionally, funding sources for SWEEP have changed over time, which have come with greater flexibility for program administration.
Irrigation technologies have also evolved rapidly in the past seven years, with advances in remote sensing and imaging technologies and data analytics. These tools have created both new opportunities and the need for more training for some growers and irrigation managers on how to manage these more complex systems.
Finally, our understanding of drought risk in California historically and in an era of climate change has continued to advance. As we wrote about in our blog last year, we are now living in an “emerging megadrought” – the 2nd driest 19-year period in 1,200 years. Fossil-fueled climate change, which scientists have been warning for decades would lead to more extreme weather patterns, is responsible for 47% of the megadrought’s severity, according to researchers. The risk of severe droughts is predicted to increase in California by 50 percent by 2100. Climate scientists also predict the state will increasingly experience precipitation whiplash, defined as “two consecutive years when wet season precipitation falls under the 20th percentile the first year and above the 80th percentile the second year.”
SWEEP Advisory Group’s Process & Recommendations
Recognizing these regulatory, technological, policy, and climate science developments, CalCAN, the California Farm Bureau, and other SWEEP advocates requested the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) to form an advisory group to review and recommend updates to SWEEP in May 2020.
Earlier this year, CDFA convened a 41-member advisory group, including farmers, University of California irrigation experts, SWEEP technical assistance providers, and irrigation industry representatives. Over three months and multiple full-day meetings, the group developed, refined, and ranked recommendations for SWEEP through a facilitated, collaborative process.
The SWEEP advisory group’s recommendations addressed a number of themes, including:
- Encouraging innovative on-farm projects to account for evolving technology and the need for flexible water management (e.g. through on-farm storage and compensation reservoirs)
- Increasing opportunities for surface water users to participate in the program (e.g. by dividing funding into two “water-focused” and “water- and GHG-focused” categories)
- Providing multilingual outreach materials and technical assistance
- Improving the application process and timing
- Prioritizing small farmers in addition to socially disadvantaged farmers
- Allowing recurring advance payments to address farmers’ cashflow challenges
- Improving coordination and promotion with groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs), irrigation districts, USDA NRCS, and commodity groups
- Identifying SWEEP’s role and goals in state-level planning around water resilience
These recommendations come just in time to shape the next round of SWEEP funding.
The Governor recently proposed $100 million for SWEEP as part of a “water resilience and drought” budget package. If that budget proposal comes to fruition, it would be the single largest allocation to the program since its creation – a welcome change after two years without program funding and as farmers reckon with a return to severe drought conditions. The advisory group’s recommendations, once implemented, promise to further increase the impact and equitable distribution of SWEEP funds.