It seemed just a bit odd when Jerry Brown, elected to his second go-’round as governor on a strong environmental program, almost immediately abandoned this state’s least expensive and most productive clean-air and environmental preservation law.
Well, OK, he didn’t completely ax the Williamson Act, a 1965 law that assures 15 million acres of open California land will not be built over for at least 20 years. Nope, he left $1,000 in the program, just like predecessor Arnold Schwarzenegger did the previous year.
Under the Williamson Act, named for former Republican state legislator John Williamson, who thought up the idea in the 1960s, farmers can get property tax exemptions if they commit to keeping their fields and ranges in agricultural use. Most contracts run for 15 or 20 years.
In exchange for the property tax revenues they lose, the 53 participating counties were long given state funds. This came to about $37 million at its peak in 2005, even then a mere drop in the state budget bucket. But Schwarzenegger in 2007 started trying to cut Williamson Act funding, one small way to make up revenues lost when he lowered vehicle license fees upon taking office in 2003.
He restored those cuts after this column informed him of a landmark 2003 Purdue University study which found that every acre of farmland in that university’s state of Indiana pulls about 0.107 tons of carbon dioxide from the air each year. That’s for all types of farmland, including pastures, orchards, cornfields and more.
This is a lowball figure, of course, because it’s based on lands with almost no green plants to remove carbon from the air in winter. But even under those conditions, the math works out to a minimum of 1.7 million tons of carbon taken from the air yearly by Williamson Act acres. That’s 3.5 billion pounds.
No program to cut greenhouse gases even comes close to those numbers, but two governors now have thrown this one on the mercy of county supervisors, who have mostly chosen to continue it.
But not all. And since farmers can’t predict when the local political climate might change, some are now thinking about selling off ranchland and other property that’s currently protected. There will be no immediate crisis because it takes years to work off a Williamson Act pact.
But a new study from UC Davis suggests some damage is in the offing because a few counties are already opting out of continuing the tax exemptions on their own and farmers and ranchers have been thinking about contingencies.
The Davis study (http://californiaagriculture.ucanr.edu) found that if current Williamson Act policies continue, owners of about 20 percent of all California ranchland would likely sell, reports author William Wetzel in the peer-reviewed journal California Agriculture. Fully 23 percent of the 700 ranchers surveyed for the report said they were likely or very likely to end their entire businesses if they lose Williamson Act tax relief.
“Of those who would sell, 76 percent predicted buyers would develop the land for non-agriculture uses,” he said. This means a large share of California’s open space could be lost through penny-wise and pound-foolish public policy and budget decisions.
Loss of that open space would impact far more than greenhouse gas problems. Reports Wetzel, “Almost all California’s surface water, including drinking water for millions of people, passes through rangeland – grasslands, oak woodlands, wetlands, shrub lands and desert.” That land accounts for 57 million acres of the state’s 101 million acre total land area.
The bad news here is plain: More promotion of climate change just when it’s becoming clear how much weather craziness the current level of change is causing. Worse air quality. Unpredictable consequences for drinking water supplies.
The good news is that the damage isn’t yet done and the farmers and ranchers now thinking about selling are years away from being able to do it, under their existing Williamson Act contracts. So Brown, as Schwarzenegger once did, has plenty of time to restore his brownest cut ever. Whether he does it will provide a good test of how much the environment and climate change really mean to him.