Sonoma County snares $8 million to fight drought and climate change

Sonoma County secured an $8 million federal grant to combat the impacts of drought and climate change in the Russian River watershed. See how the money will be spent.|

Sonoma County secured an $8 million federal grant to fund conservation projects and acquire land development rights that help combat the impacts of drought and climate change in the Russian River watershed, local and federal officials said Friday.

The grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Regional Conservation Partnership Program will underwrite a five-year effort by a partnership of 30 local agencies, led by the Sonoma County Agricultural and Open Space District, the Sonoma County Water Agency, the Pepperwood Foundation and two resource conservation districts.

The local partners in the initiative, dubbed the Sonoma County Venture Conservation Program, will put up at least $8 million in matching funds.

The agencies, working with private landowners, will 'create a shared vision of what we want to achieve,' Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore told a crowd of about 50 people Friday at Pepperwood Preserve's Dwight Center for Conservation Science in the hills northeast of Santa Rosa.

'We need to constantly 'conservationalize' our lives in every way,' Gore said. It doesn't mean curbing the business community, but 'it means keep getting better,' he said.

The large coalition of partners focused on common goals made Sonoma County's proposal 'one of the pre-eminent projects in the nation,' said Jason Weller, chief of the Agriculture Department's Natural Resources Conservation Service. 'You guys were light years ahead of many other communities. I want to see how this ends up five years from now.'

Weller said there were nearly 300 applications for grants this year. Only 65 projects were approved for a total of $240 million in grants. In two years, the conservation partnership program has funded 198 projects with a total of $590 million in all 50 states.

Counting local matching funds, the program has leveraged $900 million for conservation projects in two years, he said.

Sonoma County's program will focus on the Open Space District's purchase of about $5 million worth of conservation easements — which limit development rights — from willing owners of agricultural land along stream corridors and in areas that contribute to recharging of groundwater basins or provide fish and wildlife habitat, officials said.

The Sonoma and Gold Ridge resource conservation districts will assist landowners in implementing conservation and restoration projects focused on groundwater basins, stream corridors and farmlands.

Kara Heckert, executive director of the Sonoma district, said the goal is to develop conservation plans for 85,000 acres of agricultural land in the next five years.

The federal grant was an 'awesome opportunity' for the district to take its work 'up a notch,' she said.

'This is all about impact,' Gore said. 'Impact on the ground.'

No decisions have been made on where the money will be spent, he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or On Twitter @guykovner.

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