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Farmland trust founder, longtime water expert turns 100
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Turlock’s Jeani and John Ferrari —2021 awardees of the California Farmland Trust’s Dr. Vance Kennedy Award — wish Kennedy well during his 100th birthday celebration in May (Photo contributed).


Special to the Journal

For those who care about water, or farmland preservation, or climate catastrophes, the name Vance Kennedy might ring a bell or two. After all, he has written dozens of letters, newspaper and magazine articles on those very subjects.

But if you’re a scientist, Vance Kennedy’s name might ring 50 bells; maybe even a few hundred.

Two decades ago, I had never heard of Kennedy when he walked into my office in Modesto to talk about groundwater. So, I called my sister – who taught college-level geology courses – to ask if she had. Her eventual response: “Whatever he says, it’s the truth.”

During his time with the U.S. Geological Survey, Kennedy authored 47 scientific papers on subjects ranging from sediment-carrying capacity of floods to acid rain to using isotopes to track water’s age and movement. Kennedy’s career with the Survey culminated with the highest civilian award bestowed on civil servants. His first papers were published in the 1950s; the last was published in 2001, 17 years after he retired to Stanislaus County. Hundreds of subsequent studies have cited his original research.

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Writer Mike Dunbar talks floodwater with Kennedy at this birthday party (Photo contributed).

In May, Kennedy celebrated his 100th birthday. At the party, he briefly recalled his days aboard a minesweeper at the close of World War II; the death of his beloved wife, and the loss of a dear traveling companion. But there were also stories about trips to China and down the Grand Canyon.

Water is one of Vance’s passions. When we first met, Vance was insisting it was a bad idea to inject cheese brine into ancient aquifers. The EPA was OK with it, but Kennedy explained that water is not compressible. If you inject it into a confined space, such as an aquifer, the water already there will be pushed up or sideways; eventually it can move into freshwater.

When virtually everyone was convinced that drip-irrigation was the answer to drought, he insisted that flooding fields and orchards was essential. Drip, he said, can ruin soil by stranding salts near the surface. But when farmers flood fields, the water flushes the soils and seeps into the aquifers -- meaning people in nearby cities have something to drink in the next drought.

Now, years later, the state is short-cutting permits so farmers can flood fields and get floodwater into the ground faster.

Unwilling to rely on reporters to explain basic facts, Vance began writing opinion pieces. He has published over 30, ranging from the necessity for earthquake preparation, to The Modesto Bee’s editors being “all wet,” to the right to die.

My favorite came in 2018 when the State Water Board was trying to take water from farmers (as they still are). Vance recognized the state’s incomplete data, foolish assumptions and baseless conclusions. “Is there any way we can just tell the state to go to hell?” he asked.

One of Vance’s gifts to the future was helping create the California Farmland Trust, which protects thousands of acres of Valley farmland.

As Vance wrote: “Cities simply cannot – must not – continue to pave over those soils that best allow water to seep into the aquifers below. … If city officials succumb to the demands of those who mindlessly want to grow and grow, ignoring the fact that there are environmental limits to the population that our region can sustain, a disaster awaits.”

In 2021, the Trust awarded its highest honor – the Dr. Vance Kennedy Award – to Turlock’s Jeani and John Ferrari after they protected several hundred acres of farmland between Turlock and Delhi.

The Ferraris joined members of Vance’s family, scientists, authors, elected officials, farmers and others to celebrate Vance’s birthday. In the midst of the stories, proclamations and birthday cake, Vance sat smiling -- bemused by the statistical knowledge that there are fewer years in front of him than behind. As always, he remained more interested in trying to glimpse the future than gazing at the past.

“I missed dying quite a few times with my extreme diabetes and a heart attack that almost wiped me out,” Kennedy said. “I guess there was some more for me to do.”

Guess there still is.

As I leaned to shake his hand, Vance held tight. He wanted to talk about moving this year’s floodwater underground. It was important, he insisted, to force-filter the water using gravity; otherwise sediments will irreversibly clog the openings through which water moves in the strata below.

That’s Vance -- focused on solutions, not just problems.

“At age 100, I have not given up,” he said. Nor can we.