Vicky Espinoza with CaliWaterAg

Vicky Espinoza is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Environmental Systems Graduate Group at the University of California Merced. She has been actively involved in making science and mathematics accessible to underrepresented, Spanish-speaking communities throughout her educational career.

Can you share a brief introduction of your research and CaliWaterAg? 

There have been many studies that have stated more than 10% of agricultural land will need to go out of production in order to rebalance our groundwater aquifers. That’s a lot of land, (the question is) how is this going to happen? A lot of people depend on agriculture for their livelihood so we need to strategize.

For my research, I’m developing a land-use model that’s going to help inform where this is going to happen without it having negative impacts on our communities and growers. To develop this, we need to hear from communities, especially from those community members and growers that have been excluded in these conversations particularly non-native English speakers.

Last year, I was part of the Latino Farmer Conference and realized everything online was in English and although the Department of Water Resources (DWR) has information translated in Spanish, people will still need to navigate through English websites in order to find the materials they need. I also learned that a lot of Latino growers did not know about the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) despite many of their operations being groundwater dependent. In order to make decisions about their land, people need to be informed of the issue and policies.

Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) was very interested in the work I was doing and wanted to support my perspective and approach on the issue. Through this partnership, I initially planned to host in-person workshops for growers in the Valley that would cover SGMA related topics such as the impacts on agriculture, how to get involved, and the role of Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSA’s) in providing translation services. With COVID-19 we had to think of a different alternative which is how CaliWaterAg started. CaliWaterAg is a channel for growers and community members to be in the loop and be informed of what has been talked about in terms of SGMA in two major languages in Spanish and Hmong. I’m excited that we’ll be reaching out to our Hmong growers and community members since they also make up a large portion of the valley. This project will simultaneously address this knowledge equity gap but also work to achieve a representative land use model for the Valley. 

How is this resource an important tool and step towards supporting diverse stakeholder engagement?  

I would love to see our Spanish speaking & Hmong speaking growers to know that this is an available resource to inform whatever decision making they need to do in the future in terms of water and land. I would also like to see more of a collaborative effort and I think we are moving towards that. SGMA has provided the opportunity to rework how we problem solve and develop solutions and our community members and our growers need to be involved in this process – that their voices are elevated in these solutions and what future landscapes could look like when it comes to land repurposing to address groundwater overdraft. 

What are your thoughts about the future of groundwater sustainability? 

One challenge is the complexity in discussions about land repurposing as not necessarily meaning we are taking agricultural land completely out but finding multi-benefit uses to help replenish groundwater overdraft. SGMA is a tool and I would like to change peoples’ perspectives on seeing it as the “bad guy.” The challenge is letting go of how things have been done in the past and working collaboratively so that our solutions for the future are inclusive, equitable and representative of community needs. 

Groundwater overdraft is an issue that is local and each GSP needs to find solutions appropriate for their location. It’s important to address these complex issues on a local level and include all important stakeholders at the table. 

What plans do you have for rolling out future resources?

I will be hosting webinars online to hear community perspectives on land use and incorporate their voices into a land-use model I’m developing. I want to understand what changes people would like to see in their communities if these agricultural lands were to shift.

After a preliminary survey I plan to do model runs to show outputs of different land uses to be ranked by community member preference. It’s a co-development project where communities are involved in every step and will include their voice and their vision for the Valley. 

Vicky’s research addresses sustainable water management for global food, energy, and water security. Her doctoral research analyzes the impacts of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) on agricultural land, and how these land-use changes could impact growers and vulnerable communities in the San Joaquin Valley. Her work is built on the principle that water and land-use decisions are best made when those impacted have a say in it! She is simultaneously addressing a knowledge equity gap in the Valley through workshops in English and Spanish on SGMA and its implications on agricultural land and most recently her YouTube Channel CaliWaterAg. She hopes her research will translate into insights that can inform water policy and adaptation strategies, and result in more equitable solutions for underrepresented communities in California and beyond.