DR. GLENDA HUMISTON: Managing our Lands to Manage our Water

Dr. Glenda Humiston is Vice President of Agriculture & Natural Resources for the University of California.  At the 2019 California Irrigation Institute conference, Dr. Humiston was the opening keynote speaker, and in her speech, she talked about work being done to address drought vulnerability, the importance of managing watersheds, the goals of the California Economic Summit, and the promising future of biomass.

She began by saying that we have known for a long time that water insecurity is a huge issue, and not just due to climate change or droughts; it’s also policy, regulations, allocations and technology – there are a lot of issues and managing the effects of it are very challenging.

She presented a map, noting that it’s a first attempt at a vulnerability index that looks at climate, land use, socio-economic vulnerability and crop vulnerability.

This map is a couple of years old, and I think if we were to update that right now, there would be a lot more of the reds and oranges there than there were in 2012,” she said.  “But it is a valuable tool and it’s typical of some of the work that our UC Institute for Water Resources does.  One of the things we do and have done since 1964 is really try to pull together the wide array of researchers out there both UC and CSU, and we recently signed an MOU with the CSU system to better collaborate our UC and CSU researchers.  Increasingly, we’re working with community colleges and private sector government, and really getting that multi-disciplinary approach.”

Over the years, results of their work include rapid advances in water efficiency.  Beyond drip irrigation, there are now sensors on every individual tree that is powered from little solar panels and transmits that information to computers that manage water resources, nutrients, and the health of the plant. However, one of the challenges they have experienced in limitations in rural broadband. “You think about tens of thousands, millions of trees and vines, shooting signals around, you run into a bandwidth problem really quickly,” she said.

We know how the hydrologic cycle works; the real challenge is making sure we’re effectively utilizing it while also dealing with things like environmental needs or water quality.  The California Roundtable on Agriculture and Environment was formed by Ag Innovations that focused on water supply and food issues.  The Roundtable brought together a broad array of interest groups to share information, look at the science and the data, do the analysis, talk it through, and look for commonality of purpose, goals and opportunities.

Over the course of several years, the Roundtable published four different reports:

What came out of those discussions was this notion that we had to radically look at systems differently,” Dr. Humiston said.  “A big chunk of the problem we all face is our tendency to be either stovepiped by our own narrow focus or because our disciplines don’t always talk to each other. Working in academia right now, it’s hard to put together multi-disciplinary teams because the biologists, the ecologists, the economists, and the engineers – they’ve all got different languages.  But nevertheless, moving forward, if we’re going to truly solve some of these issues, we have to find that whole new vision of connectivity and how do we harvest from that connectivity new synergies and new ways to leverage resources.

In 2014, state agencies developed the California Water Action Plan, an effort Dr. Humiston praised.  She acknowledged it’s been slow to get implemented, but it’s very comprehensive, calling not just for increased conservation but also water storage, flood protection, and seven other actions.

What we really have come to understand through these various efforts is the understanding that there are some very diverse reservoirs of water out there in ways that most people don’t even think about it,” Dr. Humiston said.

Research recently has shown that if we could better manage the forested upper watersheds – the Sierra, the Cascades, the Santa Ana – all of our watersheds, they could be producing more water, she said.  Right now they don’t because they are overgrown and most of the state’s forests are not healthy; this contributes to the fires we have been recently experiencing.

We’ve known this for some time now, and yet when the voters passed Proposition 1 back in 2014, a $7.5 billion dollar water bond, it was really designed to make major investments in water resources to help the state,” she said.  “Less than ½ of 1% of that funding targeted anything in upper forested watersheds.  Ludicrous is one word that comes to mind.  And the folks up there in all these upper forested watersheds, they are so frustrated as they have tried to make this case, but we just couldn’t get it out there.”

In order to address these issues, it takes a broader effort, and so Dr. Humiston became involved with the California Economic Summit.  It began in 2012 when she attended the first summit; she had put together a document on access to capital and was working on rural community economic development.

I was excited to be there because we were talking about this state’s economy, and we were trying to do it in a very triple bottom line way – in fact, that’s the philosophy of the California Economic Summit: people, planet, prosperity,” she said.  “But at the end of the day, you would have sworn that the California economy was thriving on a barren asteroid in outer space.  Not a bit of discussion about natural resources, working landscapes, agriculture – not one word.  There was a small discussion about water, more about how to allocate it, but really not any discussion about water to speak of.  I and several others were just flabbergasted.”

So Dr. Humiston and colleagues convinced the Summit to charter a brand new action team on working landscapes, which she has co-chaired with A. G. Kawamura for the last several years.

The California Economic Summit now has three main goals: A million new homes, a million new trained members of the workforce, and a million acre-feet of new water every year for the next decade.

The question is how do we get there, and that’s what we’ve been doing a lot of work on,” she said, noting that there is a lot of information on the website, caeconomy.org.

In 2016, the Summit brought 20 top water people and 20 top land use people, said ‘we have to stop treating water and land use separately, so how do we find ways to better manage the two?’  The result was a list of recommendations.  At the same time, another group looked at ecosystem services which ultimately led to publication in 2017 of a document, Ecosystem Services as Vital Natural Capital, which had recommendations on how to start promoting ecosystem services as vital natural capital.

In 2017, they again brought together water people and land use people along with flood management folks and others, and had a larger summit, and out of that, there were more recommendations for groundwater recharge.

In November of 2018, several hundred people from all over the state attended the Summit; it was a broad mix of city government, county government, urban folks, economic development folks, and finance; she noted that these are sectors that don’t typically think about managing water resources.  “Because we’ve made it part of the summit’s triple bottom line, what we’re finding now is we’re getting a very diverse array, sometimes unlikely allies, that are willing to work with us on this us on what do we need to do to improve regulations that might be in the way, what kind of new policy do we need, and what kind of investments do we need?”

One outcome from the summit is legislation on expanded infrastructure financing districts. Another is an initiative called Elevate Rural California, which focuses on the rural communities where poverty and unemployment are high.  To address this, the Summit is pursuing three key activities: expanding broadband services, addressing water infrastructure, and biomass.

Dr. Humiston then closed her presentation by focusing on biomass, noting that the topic particularly resonates with the theme of the conference, Managing Our Lands to Manage Our Water.  SB 859 was legislation passed last year with the intent to facilitate forest health in those upper forested watersheds in a manner that is environmentally positive, provides economic development and jobs, and helps with climate change adaptation.

Biomass is a big dream that myself and many other people have, but we realize we’re not going to do what SB 859 is calling for if we don’t come together and literally build this supply chain ourselves,” she said.  “Right now, there’s too much invested in use of biomass in ways that frankly are not economically viable.  Burning it up for electricity is not economically viable and it will not be for decades, if ever.  I love the concept of biochar and we know if we put it into soil, it helps the soil, it sequesters carbon, and it’s good for plant growth – it’s a wonderful thing.  But the problem is, it’s not economically viable to move it around in any quantity into far flung rangelands that’s really going to be feasible.  So what do we have to do?

Dr. Humiston went back to the triple bottom line: people, planet, prosperity.  “We have to find uses for that biomass that are profitable and that can create jobs in these rural communities.”

Because biomass can only be hauled about 40 or 50 miles before it becomes economically unfeasible, they are currently identifying potential sites where early stage pre-processing can occur.  Biomass can be used in cellulostic nanofibers, bioplastics, and some of the advanced new wood products, and for most biomass products, the first three or four steps are actually kind of the same.

Do that early stage up there and you’re hauling the feedstock down into the valley floor where you’ve got highways, railways, Port of Stockton, etc,” she said.  “We’ve got folks interested in manufacturing here, but what really makes it work is the market.  That’s where we’re playing catchup this year to Oregon and Washington state and Canada.  Oregon State passed legislation requiring public institutions to purchase these advanced wood products.  University of California is already moving forward with the goal of purchasing these advanced wood products.”

There are multiple benefits, including healthier forests and improved wildlife habitat.  “We’re not talking about clear cutting here, in fact that’s a huge issue that we have to do a lot of education on,” she said, acknowledging that some environmental groups don’t want anything touched in the forests.  “Well that’s not working, folks.  That’s just not working. … The economic and health damage that smoke did this last year was unbelievable.  Other benefits are enhanced recreation opportunities and 9 to 16% more water out of the Sierra and the Cascades, which produce about 60% of the water we use.  That’s huge.”

There are also jobs and economic opportunities for rural communities, as well as climate benefits because advanced wood products can sequester carbon.  Multistory buildings that are being built out of advanced wood products in Oregon, Europe, and Canada.  “These new wood products are amazing,” said Dr. Humiston.  “They are more energy efficient, they are better in an earthquake, they are actually better in a fire, because steel melts, but advanced wood products are coated and treated, so they don’t catch fire, they don’t burn.  They also sequester carbon.  These buildings are the equivalent of taking thousands even tens of thousands of cars off the road every year.

So you probably weren’t thinking about biomass, but when you think about where are we going to get that water that we need and have these healthier triple bottom line communities – people, planet, prosperity – we have to start thinking a little more creatively, we have to start looking for these multidisciplinary options, these opportunities, these unlikely allies to pursue.”

Dr. Humiston closed by reminding that those at University of California Ag and Natural Resources are thrilled to work with you.  “We’re the part of UC that’s been around for 150 years,” she said.  “We have the offices in every county; our researchers are out there in the field with you, and our research extension centers working on exactly these issues with you in your communities to find the solutions and bring all the resources of our land grant universities to your communities to be used.”

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