Ask an Enviromentalist—An Occasional Series

Ann Hayden of Environmental Defense Fund Shares Her Thoughts on Ag and SGMA

By Don Wright,

This is the first “Ask an Enviro” feature and we have hope it will grow into something profitable for all of us who drink water and eat food – that’s the common link. I’ve heard my entire career farmers are like herding cats and ag does a poor job of telling its story. So, there will also be a feature “Ask a Farmer”. The plan is to run each of these two features once a month. Do you folks working in agriculture have some questions you’d like to ask environmentalists? Here’s your chance. Do you folks who don’t work in agriculture have questions for farmers? Here’s your chance. Send your questions to me and we’ll start this dialog.

I’m very pleased to introduce you to Ann Hayden of Environmental Defense Fund. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Ann over the past couple of years and I can tell you she’s not a flame thrower. Likewise EDF recognizes humans are a part of the environment as well. You may contact Ann at

Ask an Enviro is launching this new series, “Ask an Enviro,” to help break down silos, open communication and build a stronger bridge between environmentalists and farmers in our community. I’m Ann Hayden, senior director, western water and resilient landscapes, at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). EDF is an international nonprofit that has spent decades building inclusive environmental coalitions alongside farmers, ranchers, corporate leaders and other unexpected allies — teaming up on projects where we can make the greatest impact. EDF has been working on environmental issues in California since the 1980s and was founded in New York in 1967. I’ve been a member of EDF’s western water team for more than 17 years and met Don Wright at a landowner workshop held by the Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District.

  1. Why is EDF working on water issues in California? How would you describe EDF’s approach?


EDF’s been working in California for more than 40 years to ensure that people and our environment have reliable water supply now and into the future. The reason is simple: Water is central to all of us.  It hydrates us, helps feed us, powers our economies, sustains wildlife, and provides recreation on rivers and lakes.  We recognize the critical role that the agriculture sector plays — farmers are literally feeding us — and we have long believed that agriculture has an important role in being part of the water solution, and that rural communities need to have a say in how decisions are made. That’s why we work with farmers, marginalized communities, and other local stakeholders to understand their needs and challenges. We then collaborate with them on designing and implementing sustainable water and land use solutions that balance all interests and protect the most vulnerable.

In some cases these solutions take the form of water accounting and trading programs, like the one we co-developed with the Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District and a group of its ag customers in Kern County. In other cases, we work with rural communities to increase local capacity to effectively engage in decision-making and advocate for safe, reliable drinking water, as we did in partnership with the Rural Community Assistance Corporation and the Rural Water Boards Leadership Institute.

  1. How does EDF envision balancing the needs of the farming community with its environmental goals, especially as SGMA requires reducing groundwater pumping?

            We believe that meeting the needs of the farming community and the environment are not mutually exclusive, that it is possible to help agriculture adapt to an uncertain water future while ensuring that environmental conditions improve. Where feasible, EDF supports developing additional water supplies for the Valley, but even with full development of affordable and environmentally responsible supplies, most evidence suggests that land conversion will be required. Balanced solutions will require a mix of different actions. We know that farmers have some tough decisions to make with the limited water supply they have, but without SGMA, the decisions would become even tougher as water scarcity reached a crisis during the next drought or the drought after that. With SGMA, we have the chance to think about the future and plan deliberately for the reductions in water use that have to happen at some point.

If farmers focus on irrigating their most productive lands, then it may be possible to repurpose less productive lands and create other values that farmers and communities can benefit from.  And, we think California should bring some public dollars to bear to help in the transition. Examples of new uses could be low-impact solar, wildlife-friendly groundwater recharge, and restored floodplains to reduce flood risks and restore habitat.  In the case of habitat, farmers could gain a new source of revenue by selling mitigation credits to entities, such as Caltrans or a developer, that need to mitigate environmental impacts.

  1. What projects are you working on that you are most excited about?

I think the groundwater accounting work with Rosedale Rio Bravo will pay dividends for California’s water future.  When farmers have easy to access data about their water use, they can make more informed water management decisions.I’m also very excited about a new project in the Kaweah Sub Basin in Tulare County because it brings together local stakeholders to develop options about how to implement the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in ways that meet the region’s goals. This project will be the first in the Central Valley to use the state’s Regional Conservation Investment Strategies (RCIS) program to help communities respond to the water and land use changes that are expected under SGMA. Groundwater Sustainability Agencies in the region recognize that some amount of acreage will likely be taken out of production as a way to balance groundwater demand with available supply. The RCIS allows stakeholders to identify areas that can be consolidated and converted — on a voluntary basis — to other uses like habitat, groundwater recharge, dry land grazing and low-impact solar, which farmers can be compensated for creating.  Importantly, the process will proactively engage diverse members of the community to have a say on what they want their community’s future to look like.

We were really pleased to see the East Kaweah Groundwater Sustainability Agency awarded $515,000 in February from the state’s Wildlife Conservation Board to develop an RCIS plan. Not surprisingly, the kickoff has been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic but it’s now scheduled to happen, virtually, in July. My hope is that this process in the Kaweah Sub Basin can become a model for other regions as they grapple with similarly challenging issues.

  1. On a more personal note, how did you end up working on water issues?

            I grew up in a rural part of Yolo County surrounded by farms and small agricultural operations. While my family wasn’t directly involved in farming, my brothers and I got our feet wet raising pigs and sheep and showing them at the annual 4-H festival in nearby Woodland. We were friends with our farming neighbors and shared the same underground water supply as them, so anytime there was a disruption in the operation of our shared well, residents and farmers had to work together to quickly find a solution.

Over the years, the community also came together to figure out how to improve the levee system when roads, properties and farms flooded during wet years. There were also hot, dry summers that seemed to repeat year after year, and I have stark memories of folks coming together to restore nearby Putah Creek, which would completely dry up and strand salmon. So I came to realize over time just how much water connects us all and how collective action can make a huge difference. This appreciation led me to focus my education on better understanding how to manage these systems in ways that can work for people and wildlife.  Shortly after finishing graduate school, I landed my dream job at EDF, where I was quickly working on projects to help improve water supply reliability.

Working with Agriculture to Meet Environmental Goals

Working with Stewards of California’s Farmland to Meet Environmental Goals

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm News Director


If you give a farmer a goal, they will most likely strive to meet it—even exceed it—as long as it fosters great stewardship of their land and allows them to sustainably farm into the future.

Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) logo

Eric Holst, associate vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund‘s working lands program, and an expert in developing strategies for environmental management on working forest, farms, and ranches, has an important view of the California Agriculture industry. “It’s an incredibly important industry. It’s greater than $56 billion net for California farmers. I think, even more important than the monetary value, is the land and the water that it touches,” said Holst.

Holst’s career has focused on improving livelihoods and environmental conditions in rural places in the U.S. and Latin America. Appointed as a member of the California Board of Food and Agriculture by Governor Jerry Brown for his ability to effectively communicate with a wide variety of constituents on difficult environmental issues, Holst elaborated, “Farmers and ranchers in California have a lot of influence on how we manage land, how we manage our landscapes, how we manage our waterways. It’s incredibly important to weigh in on policy issues that relate to agriculture in California.” california-farmland

Based in Sacramento, Holst knows how pervasive California agriculture is, spanning the state from the Mexican border to the Oregon border. “About 45% of California is in privately-held working lands—land managed by farmers, ranchers, and forestland owners,” Holst noted. Holst and his team interfaced with these private landowners to map a big part of it.

Holst, who also serves as director of the Forest Stewards Guild and American Wind Wildlife Institute (AWWI), explained, while these landowners have a lot of freedom about how to manage their land, “It’s probably the most highly regulated place in the world in terms of environmental performance.” Despite regulatory constraint on land management decisions, Holst believes, “there’s a lot of room to make decisions that can either help or harm the environment.”

Holst reflected, “It is really an important role that we have on the CDFA Board to weigh in and try to push California in the right direction.” Ultimately, in Holst’s experience, “If you set a goal and then allow farmer, rancher or forest landowner to figure out how to meet that goal, that’s probably the best way,” said Holst.

“Conditions are different on every farm, every ranch,” Holst stated. “I think it’s important to set standards high. I think California has higher standards than just about anywhere else. We want to develop policies and implementation of policies that will give a lot of flexibility to the individual operator. That tends to be, in my experience, the system that works best,” he noted.

Prather Ranch Receives 2015 California Leopold Conservation Award

Prather Ranch Named 2015 California Leopold Conservation Award® Recipient


SACRAMENTO, Calif. – (November 18, 2015) Sand County Foundation, the California Farm Bureau Federation and Sustainable Conservation are proud to announce Prather Ranch as the recipient of the prestigious 2015 California Leopold Conservation Award®. The award honors private landowner achievement in the voluntary stewardship and management of natural resources.

Prather Ranch, owned and managed by Jim and Mary Rickert, is a working cattle ranch headquartered in Macdoel, and stretches across five counties. Under the Rickerts’ management, Prather Ranch has grown in size, implemented conservation enhancements and established several permanent conservation easements. Over the last 35 years, Prather Ranch has continually collaborated with diverse partners to enhance the land and promote land stewardship in the community.

One of the ranch’s first efforts to promote biodiversity was taking an unusual approach to managing the wild rice fields on their land near Mt. Shasta. After rice harvest, they began tilling the stubble into the soil and keeping their fields covered in water year-round. The practice not only benefited common species of waterfowl such as Canada Geese and Snow Geese, but it also attracted shore birds like plovers and terns, previously found only on the coast.

Through conservation easements in cooperation with the Shasta Land Trust, the Rickerts have preserved some of the state’s most spectacular wildflowers and protected sensitive vernal pools and riparian areas. Prather Ranch has also planted several miles of riparian habitat along streams and irrigation canals to benefit a wide range of animals such as the California Quail and the endangered Shasta crayfish.

Jim and Mary Rickert provide community leadership, working with 4-H, Future Farmers of America, and local schools for ranch field trips and other activities.

Given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, the Leopold Conservation Award recognizes extraordinary achievement in voluntary conservation. In his influential 1949 book, A Sand County Almanac, Leopold called for an ethical relationship between people and the land they own and manage, which he called “an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity.”

“Because more than half of all land in California is privately owned, how landowners manage their properties has a dramatic and lasting effect on the environment and quality of life for all Californians,” said Ashley Boren, executive director of Sustainable Conservation. “Since the 70s, Jim and Mary have demonstrated an above-and-beyond commitment to enhancing the land, water and wildlife across a large swath of the state. And, they’ve done it in true Leopold fashion, regarding their land not simply as a commodity that belongs to them, but rather seeing their land as a community to which they belong.”

“The Leopold Conservation Award recognizes unique yet replicable strategies a farmer or rancher has developed in managing their land, to be the best steward of the natural resources,” said Paul Wenger, California Farm Bureau President. “We are honored to join Sand County Foundation and Sustainable Conservation to recognize the extraordinary efforts of California farmers and ranchers who go above and beyond in managing and enhancing our natural resources.”

The Leopold Conservation Award program inspires other landowners through these examples and provides a visible forum where farmers, ranchers and other private landowners are recognized as conservation leaders.

The 2015 California Leopold Conservation Award will be presented December 7 at the California Farm Bureau Federation’s Annual Meeting in Reno, NV. Each finalist will be recognized at the event, and Prather Ranch will be presented with a crystal depicting Aldo Leopold and $10,000.

The award sponsors also wish to congratulate the 2015 finalists for their outstanding contributions to agriculture and conservation: Bruce and Sylvia Hafenfeld, who own Hafenfeld Ranch and manage public lands in eastern Kern County, and Ken and Matt Altman, who own and manage Altman Specialty Plants in Riverside and San Diego Counties.

The California Leopold Conservation Award is made possible thanks to generous contributions from American Ag Credit, The Harvey L. & Maud S. Sorenson Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund, The Mosaic Company, DuPont Pioneer, and The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.


The Leopold Conservation Award is a competitive award that recognizes landowner achievement in voluntary conservation. The award consists of $10,000 and a crystal depicting Aldo Leopold. Sand County Foundation presents Leopold Conservation Awards in California, Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Sand County Foundation is a non-profit conservation organization dedicated to working with private landowners across North America to advance ethical and scientifically sound land management practices that benefit the environment.


Sustainable Conservation helps California thrive by uniting people to solve the toughest challenges facing our land, air and water. Since 1993, it has brought together business, landowners and government to steward the resources that we all depend on in ways that make economic sense. Sustainable Conservation believes common ground is California’s most important resource. 



The California Farm Bureau Federation works to protect family farms and ranches on behalf of over 53,000 members statewide and as part of a nationwide network of more than 6.2 million Farm Bureau members.