Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta farmers express doubts on ‘carbon farming’

• By Kevin Hecteman •

Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta
California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta — photo by Vicky Boyd

Plans to convert nearly 200,000 acres of California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta farmland into rice production or tule-based carbon farms are being greeted with skepticism among representatives of Delta farmers.

The Delta Conservancy, a state agency, has partnered with environmental organizations and universities on pilot projects aimed at stopping or slowing ongoing land subsidence in the Delta under a California Wetland Protocol. The protocol, currently certified through the nonregulatory American Carbon Registry, is being used to quantify carbon sequestration from growing tules or rice on seasonally or perennially wetted lands in the Delta.

A few thousand acres of experimental rice in the Delta are being studied to better understand any contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. If proven, the conservancy’s goal is to present its nonregulatory protocol for adoption by the state Air Resources Board as a formal protocol for use in California’s existing cap-and-trade program.

“The big problem I see is that I don’t think the farming community has been engaged in this discussion,” said Osha Meserve, an attorney representing Delta landowners and reclamation districts.

Meserve took issue with one claim being made by the conservancy: that the Delta produces one-quarter of California’s agricultural carbon emissions.

“I have a big concern that the math that the conservancy is using is based on some really limited data, and it’s overstating the contribution of Delta agriculture in particular to carbon emissions,” she said.

Bruce Blodgett, executive director of the San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation, objects to the idea of converting so much Delta land to rice and tules.

“There’s no value to anyone other than the individual landowner. … That’s not what’s best for the community, and more importantly, that’s not what’s best for the region,” Blodgett said.

Meserve echoed this, noting that “growing tules, even if you could get paid for it, doesn’t create any other jobs.”

Blodgett doesn’t so much take issue with rice planting as he does with the idea of paying people to do it—especially when other rice farmers, in San Joaquin County and elsewhere, are paying their own way.

“Rice production has long been a part of the Delta,” he said. “You shouldn’t have to subsidize it, or it doesn’t make sense.”

Blodgett pointed out that the Delta is protected under state law, the Delta Protection Act of 1992, aimed at ensuring the region doesn’t disappear under a lake of asphalt.

“This area is preserved for agricultural production,” Blodgett said. “You can’t build subdivisions in the Delta in the primary zone. You can’t go in and reinforce levees in the middle of the Delta and say, ‘We’re going to build a new community out here, and it’s going to be all houses and shopping malls.'”

Melinda Terry, executive director of the California Central Valley Flood Control Association, said the Delta Protection Act came about because the state did not want to see Delta agricultural land developed.

“In this case,” she said, “the conversion will still take place. It won’t be development, but it would be wetlands.”

This is where communication is key, she noted.

“The program relies on landowners volunteering to convert their land,” Terry said. “If this program is dependent on that, then you need to go meet with them now to get buy-in, that this is something they’re interested in beyond just the couple of landowners that they do have currently participating in pilot programs.”

One challenge that has arisen, Meserve said, is that tules have their own greenhouse-gas issues.

“There’s a lot of methane emissions that come in when you grow tules,” she said. “We don’t think that the calculations that the conservancy has been using really take that into account.”

The Nature Conservancy, which owns Staten Island, is conducting a study measuring methane coming from the tule fields it’s planting, Meserve said.

“That will be really important information, because before we push farmers into changing crops to tules or some other crop, we need to make sure we’re not creating some other issue,” she said.

Blodgett said the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers makes the Delta region ideal for farming.

“A lot of the water that flows through the state flows through the Delta,” he said. “That was why it was developed for agriculture, and that’s why the state Legislature protected it for agriculture.”

Meserve pointed out the wide array of crops grown in the Delta—more than two dozen, according to a 2016 LandIQ map of the region.

“That’s one of the cool things about the delta, is that there’s this whole variety of crops,” she said. “Some of that is making its way to the local markets and restaurants. It’s kind of the richness of our region. I think that’s another concern I would have with converting a lot to this carbon-market type farming, is that you would lose some of the benefits of having those crops coming out of the delta.”

Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. This article originally appeared in Ag Alert, the weekly nespaper of the California Farm Bureau Federation.

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