After decades of plans to convert the coveted Madera Ranch into a water bank for farmers to draw from in dry years, the Madera Irrigation District finally found a purpose for it — turning it over for conservancy.
On Oct. 24, Madera Irrigation District optioned the 11,000 acres of grassland east of Firebaugh to the Trust for Public Land for $58 million. It’s the same scenic expanse of land that the federal government once sank $20 million into for a controversial underground water bank that never materialized.
Project manager Alex Size with TPL is confident in their ability to raise the funds, which if completed, would close a long chapter for the land once envisioned for underground water storage.
If completed, the 16 square miles of land would be a haven for multiple endangered species and provide space for birdwatchers and researchers alike, said Size.
It also provides critical land for cattle grazing.
More notably, the land has never been used for row crops, Size said.
“You do not see this type of property come up in the Central Valley at large,” Size said. “I think in a couple spots you might have that type of acreage, but it’s usually irrigated ag. This is just such a pristine property from a habitat standpoint. It’s just very unique from that perspective.”
Madera Ranch: 11,000 Acres of ‘Untilled, Unirrigated, San Joaquin Valley Floor Habitat’
Dating back to when the Pope family owned the land for grazing, the land never had a row crop on it, Size said. There, native grasses flourished, making it prime land for cattle grazing.
“It’s chock full of threatened and endangered species like the kit fox, the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, borrowing owl, et cetera,” Size said. “And so it’s been recognized for a long time as a high priority for conservation.”
Ranchers and farmers have been turning to land conservancy more and more as farmers face difficulties growing and younger generations show dwindling interest in family operations, Size said.
But even with that, Madera Ranch represents a rare find.
The enormous parcel is nearly contiguous, meaning for native species, easier movement throughout the land, Size said. For researchers and cattle, it means not needing permission from other landowners to cross private property to get from one parcel to another.
Non-native grasses have come to the land and often outcompete native grasses. Where elk would have normally been able to keep those grasses in check, conservationists now need cattle to fill that place.
“You need a quadruped — either elk in the past, of course — or more recently cattle, to go in there and kind of mow some of those grasses to give the native grasses and species that call that habitat home a fighting chance,” Size said.
MID has given the trust 24 months to come up with $58 million to buy the land. A news release from MID stated that this money would go back into infrastructure throughout MID. Multiple attempts to speak with a representative of MID were unsuccessful.
TPL still needs to fundraise and still needs to do due diligence typical of a real estate purchase. The group also will have to do environmental reports on the land as well.
Size expects the California Wildlife Conservation Board to contribute the lion’s share of the money to purchase the land. TPL will have to raise the rest. Madera Ranch isn’t TPL’s biggest purchase — they’ve done projects for $250 million, Size said.
Size said they still have to raise between $15 million and $18 million.
But if TPL can’t raise the money in time, Irrigation District board members could vote to sell it to someone else. Solar projects have been proposed there, Size said, or someone could see the land’s potential for farming.
“While no one’s currently knocking on the door to acquire the property right now — I mean, interest rates are pretty high of course, we might not have a lot of competition there, but in two years, who knows what it looks like,” Size said. And multiple interests have proposed uses for the land.
MID Received $20 Million in Federal Funds for Water Project Later Deemed ‘Infeasible’
Madera Irrigation District purchased Madera Ranch in 2005 for $37.5 million. Before MID purchased it, Enron subsidiary and water company Azurix owned the land, attempting to create a water bank of their own.
But Maderans feared the company would export water from the already-overdrafted land, according to a 2008 report on water from Madera County. In response, supervisors placed significant rules on exporting water outside the area. Enron broke up Azurix in 2001 and sold the company off.
Before Azurix, the Bureau of Reclamation also attempted to create a water bank.
The ground’s aquifers make it prime land for water storage, according to testimony from Madera Irrigation District board member Carl Janzen in his 2008 testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power.
“Large pools of water literally disappear overnight, quickly percolating down to the overdrafted aquifer below,” Janzen said, according to a transcript.
The land would store runoff from the San Joaquin River during wet years. Janzen estimated it could store half of Friant Dam. The county’s 2008 report stated banked water could be pumped back upstream to reach even eastern Madera County.
Former U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) had worked with then Representative George Radanovich (R-Mariposa) to secure federal funds for Madera Irrigation District’s plans to convert Madera Ranch into a water bank.
Janzen testified before both the House of Representatives and Senate about the proposal. Janzen estimated the cost of the project to reach $90 million. Radanovich and Feinstein secured $20 million in federal funds to reach that goal. Questions as to whether the money had to be returned went unanswered.
In 2011, the project was completed.
But in 2016, when permits needed to be renewed, MID chose not to renew them, citing increased environmental, engineering, and permitting costs.
“This was not a decision that was taken lightly,” Janzen said in a 2016 news release following the announcement. Janzen was board president at the time. “The Board believes it is in the District’s best interest to let the permits expire, as opposed to investing significant District funds and time in renewing permits for an infeasible project as was contemplated in the permits.”