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A solar farm covers part of Alan Changala's farmland near Ducor, Calif. The land has very little groundwater or canal water so Changala leased out 300 acres to the solar farm developer, which opened the farm in 2016. His plan is to lease out another 400 acres for solar.

A solar farm covers part of Alan Changala's farmland near Ducor, Calif. The land has very little groundwater or canal water so Changala leased out 300 acres to the solar farm developer, which opened the farm in 2016. His plan is to lease out another 400 acres for solar. (Craig Kohlruss/Fresno Bee/TNS)

On the Changala family farm in Tulare County, Calif., the past and future are separated by a dirt road and a barbed-wire fence.

On the south side sits a wheat field. On the north, a solar farm, built three years ago, sending electricity to thousands of Southern Californians.

Alan Changala sees little difference between the two.

"We're still farming the sun," he said.

Farmers in the San Joaquin Valley are finding a lucrative new cash crop: solar electricity. As they struggle to cope with the Valley's chronic water shortages, they've increasing turned to solar as a means of supplementing their revenue and keeping the remainder of their farming operations afloat. An estimated 13,000 acres of Valley farmland already have been converted to solar farms, said Erica Brand, the California energy program director at the Nature Conservancy.

And now solar energy is about to swallow even larger patches of Valley farmland.

Beginning in January, California's Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA, will require farmers across the state to gradually reduce the amount of groundwater they can extract from their wells. In the Valley, where groundwater basins have been seriously depleted by decades of over-pumping, the Public Policy Institute of California predicts that at least 535,000 acres of Valley farmland could be permanently retired over the next 20 years as farmers curtail their water consumption.

The institute estimated that 50,000 idled acres could go solar, converting some of the world's most productive tomato farms, pistachio orchards and dairies into vast fields of teal-colored photovoltaic panels, delivering electricity to the four corners of California's power grid.

But the solar rush won't rescue the Valley's struggling economic base from the ravages of the groundwater law. Simply put, solar farms create few permanent jobs. They're major employers when they're under construction but turn into ghost towns once the solar panels become operational.

When panels were being installed on the Changala farm in 2015 and 2016, workers were everywhere. "They brought them in, in school buses," Changala said.

Now, however, the site is a job-free zone, except for the occasional maintenance employee who arrives to make repairs. The day-to-day work is performed remotely, out of Southern California.

The scarcity of permanent employees is a drag on the economy. In Kern County, where thousands of acres of land have been converted to solar, farmland that's been taken out of production "doesn't pay for libraries," said Lorelei Oviatt, the county's planning and natural resources director. "We have 900,000 people who live in Kern County who need jobs and services and quality of life."

Local government officials also say solar doesn't pay its way as a tax generator. They are dismayed about a tax break, bestowed years ago by the Legislature, that lets project owners avoid paying property taxes on the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of solar panels they've installed on their facilities. In other words, the properties are taxed as if they're still being used for agriculture. The tax break is in effect until 2025.

"It's no longer an infant industry. Fifteeen years later, solar is doing very well, thank you very much," said Paul Smith, vice president for government affairs at Rural County Representatives of California. "It's a concern for the long-term health of counties."

Solar does nourish California's insatiable hunger for renewable energy, however. California utilities get one-third of their power from renewable sources and, by state law, have to raise that figure to 60% by 2030 and 100% by 2045.

Solar could be a big part of the solution.

"You could theoretically see the San Joaquin (Valley) single-handedly be able to meet California's renewable energy goals," said Daniel Kim, a vice president at Golden State Clean Energy, which plans to develop one of the world's largest solar projects on farmland that was retired years ago near Naval Air Station Lemoore in Kings County.

"From a region that has relied primarily on agriculture, you could create the hub for new energy, and the new economy," Kim said.

Big money in solar

Big money is moving into Valley solar.

Con Edison, the big New York utility, spent $1.6 billion last year buying solar farms in multiple states, including at least five in the Valley. The Wonderful Co., the pistachio mega-grower controlled by Southern California billionaires Stewart and Lynda Resnick, earlier this year announced plans to build three solar farms on a total of 157 acres it owns in Kern and Madera counties. All of the electricity produced on the solar farms will be used to power Wonderful's farming operations.

Golden State Clean Energy - backed by the financial muscle of Los Angeles real estate investment firm CIM Group - expects to break ground later this year on the 4,000-acre first phase of its project, known as Westlands Solar Park. Kim said the project eventually will consume 20,000 acres of land in Kings County, about half of which is owned by Westlands Water District, the big farm-irrigation agency serving the west side of the Valley.

Land conversions are happening so quickly that local officials are starting to look at the long-term impacts. In Tulare County, developers are required to post a bond to ensure that the concrete pads and steel posts that house the solar panels get removed if the solar facility is ever abandoned.

"We don't want a scrapyard of solar panels in a desolate wasteland," said Michael Washam, the county's assistant planning and economic development director.

As they prepare for land to go out of production, some Valley farm leaders are turning to groups that have traditionally been regarded as agriculture's adversaries - the environmental community - for help.

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Farm groups are working with organizations such as the Nature Conservancy and Environmental Defense Fund to develop "conservation easements" - legal arrangements that would pay farmers to turn some of their land over to wildlife habitats. Conservation easements can be funded by private donations or state programs such as the Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation Program, which uses funds from California's "cap and trade" carbon emissions fees.

For instance, Eric Limas, who runs a pair of irrigation districts in the Pixley area of Tulare County, believes farmers could "get something of value" by donating land to an existing wildlife refuge that serves as part of the Pacific Flyway.

With the groundwater law looming, "we're just getting phone calls all the time," said Kara Heckert, California director at American Farmland Trust, a nonprofit that works with farmers to secure land from development.

Whether it's wildlife habitat, solar farms or some other use, Valley leaders say they have to make sure land retirement takes place intelligently. Neighboring landowners have to coordinate so if they do retire portions of their farms, the land parcels can be clumped together and something useful can be developed on it.

"What really worries us is a random patchwork" of land, said Jason Phillips of the Friant Water Authority, which delivers water to farmers on the east side of the Valley. "We want to convert it to something other than a dust bowl. That's what we're trying to avoid - areas of the Valley that are just unplanned."

In a region where the air quality is terrible and the American Lung Association says asthma plagues one out of every six children, the prospect of randomly retired patches of farm dirt is worrisome. "Land idled to achieve groundwater balance could contribute to dust and weed problems that compromise air quality and neighboring farmland," the Public Policy Institute warned in February.

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District is concerned, too, and will keep a close a watch for any problems, said deputy director Morgan Lambert.

'A farmer, through and through'

Si Changala is 85 and has devoted his life to agriculture.

His family left the Basque region of Spain for America more than a century ago, initially running a sheep ranch in Nevada and then growing vegetables in Orange County. In 1979 Si bought land in Tulare County, just south of Ducor, a tiny community originally called Dutch Corners by its immigrant founders.

The farm covers 1,400 acres. Most of it's devoted to wheat, but about one fifth of the acreage, on the east side of State Route 65, is covered with solar panels, courtesy of the deal his son Alan made.

"It's not my deal, it's my kid's deal," Si Changala said, standing on the gravel road separating the solar panels from the wheat field. "It's not a good deal to see all this glass out here, when you're a farmer all you're life. You've got to go with the times."

His son Alan, who leases the land from his father, said converting part of the farm to solar was a matter of bowing to reality: "This is prime farmland but the water is really expensive."

The Changala farm does have water available from wells and an irrigation canal, but they're so costly that practically the entire spread is "dry-farmed" - that is, fed by whatever rain falls from the sky. That's enough to plant wheat on half the farm, every other year, on a rotating basis.

It doesn't make for a huge harvest. With the alternate-year rotation, Changala said the wheat business works out to an annual income of about $100 per acre. Changala, who raises pumpkins and pistachios on a separate farm he owns 15 miles away, was plenty interested when solar developers started sniffing around his father's property several years ago.

"He's a good negotiator (but) it didn't take a lot of arm-twisting," said Hal Dittmer of Wellhead Electric, a Sacramento renewable energy developer. Dittmer personally negotiated the deal at the Changalas' kitchen table in 2014 to lease 300 acres of the family's Ducor property.

Changala said the lease pays $1,000 an acre, or ten times what the family takes in from wheat.

"I'm a farmer, through and through, since I could crawl," said Changala, 58. "But it's a great deal. It's more profitable."

Wellhead sold its development rights to Coronal Energy, a Pasadena company that's partnered with Japanese electronics giant Panasonic to build solar farms in the U.S. Construction was completed in 2016 and the solar farm - technically, it's two separate facilities, known as Nicolis and Tropico - went live. The farm has a generating capacity of 34 megawatts and produces enough juice to power 9,000 homes in Southern California Edison's territory.

The facility is in a part of the Valley brimming with solar energy. About three miles north of the Changala property, a 110-acre Con Edison solar farm churns out power for Southern Californians. About 20 miles west, on the other side of Highway 99, lies a cluster of solar farms in the Alpaugh area. A total of 4,000 acres of Tulare County farmland has been converted to solar in the past decade, county officials said.

More is coming. Changala said he's negotiating to lease another 400 acres for a second solar facility, shrinking the footprint of his wheat farm even more. Washam, the county planning officer, said developers have been filing more applications for permits in the past few months after several years of inactivity.

Dittmer, the developer from Sacramento, said the state's groundwater law will almost surely lead to more solar facilities as Valley farmers respond to cutbacks in water supplies.

"Before, you could drill deep wells and liquidate the aquifer," Dittmer said. "That game is over now. (Solar) is a good use of that land, frankly, and for California to meet its energy goals, there's a lot of additional solar development that has to happen."

Visit The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.) at www.sacbee.com

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