Dr. Vance C. Kennedy: The man who knew everything about water and then some

There wasn’t much that could get in the way of Dr. Vance C. Kennedy’s passion for education, water and the protection of our environment.

With a genuine interest in these subjects and a background in chemistry and geology, the California Farmland Trust founding board member contributed a vast amount of valuable research to many communities throughout his lifetime.


Early Career

In 1950, Kennedy had entered his master’s program, pursuing one of his many degrees. His scientific background granted him a handful of opportunities, some of which he can’t explain how or why, only that they had happened.

“The [United States Geological Survey] was a marvelous group to work for because even then they trusted me as a brand-new guy working on a master’s,” Kennedy said. “I was just starting, so how they found me I have no idea, but they called me up and said, ‘Hey do you want a summer job?’”

He never looked back.

With one week of training under his belt, USGS set him loose in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho where Kennedy did what he does best.

In 1950, he began testing lead, zinc and copper contents in soils near water pathways in a Coeur d’Alene mining district. This was the beginning of a long, fulfilling career with the USGS.

Even at 100 years old, Kennedy detailed his procedures like it happened yesterday.

“I was going along and knowing that in the streams there’d be enormous amounts of zinc,” he said. “I was out sampling the stream and as I expected in a mining district, it had enormous amounts of dissolved metals in it.”

Kennedy’s first scientific article became published after that summer. Shortly after, he received a call from the Coeur d’Alene mining district that he laughed off.

“I found the first ore deposit in the world that summer,” Kennedy said with a grin. “I never got any credit for it, but that’s a great story.”

In his lifetime, Dr. Kennedy published over 40 scientific articles related to chemistry and geology.


Lifelong Learner

Kennedy had a true passion for water, but his appreciation for the land was a close second.

Kennedy championed for educational opportunities within local communities. One of the many he suggested was a program to educate Central Valley youth on water sources.

He believed that if people had a general understanding of where their water is coming from, communities would be able to join a greater conversation around climate issues.

He became an advocate for farmers and ranchers all over the Central Valley of California.

“The way the erosion wore, was that we ended up with many of the clays that were incorporated in the flood water that went into the ocean, but farmlands here are a combination of sand and silt, so the permeability is great,” he said.

Kennedy and his longtime friend Denny Jackman discussed how permeable soils of the Valley help recharge the aquifer any time it rains. Farmers help recharge the aquifer when they irrigate.

“The city of Modesto uses well water. Half of it is from groundwater pumps and the other half from river flow,” Kennedy said. “Up until they planted almond trees in the foothills, the water coming down the river was free of nitrate. The water coming underground from farmers’ flood area was lower nitrate, so you could distinguish the water from the farmers being contributed to the city and what was coming from the river.”

He said half of Modesto’s source is from the river and the other half is from the groundwater supplied by flood irrigation techniques.

Kennedy attempted to fight for further investigation on this for a long time and never had any luck. He said even though records were accessible, people were resistant to look into it.

He remained persistent in his effort to make this information accessible to the public. He felt confident that knowledge of this would change his community’s narrative around water, land and food security.

“It’s just an estimate, but on the order that half of the city water is coming from underground flow from recharging from the farmers and the farmers aren’t getting any credit for it – they’re being punished,” Kennedy said.


Secure the water, secure the land and secure the food

Kennedy’s involvement in California Farmland Trust – first known as the Central Valley Farmland Trust – began when he lost a piece of his land to development in Modesto.

He received compensation for his losses shortly after and donated some of his profit to CVFT and the American Farmland Trust around 2004.

From that point forward, Kennedy saw the organization through each of its milestones. He lived to see the protection of 17,606 acres across 81 farms and 6 California counties.

His ties to CFT’s mission to protect California farmland rests in knowing what these lands are capable of.

In one of many letters to his friends at the Modesto Bee, Kennedy wrote:

“Global warming is inevitable… In California we can expect a great reduction, and perhaps elimination, of snow storage in mountains, increased intensity of precipitation and much longer and intense droughts. That is where wholesale preserving of permeable farmland soils become imperative over EVERYTHING else.”

Kennedy said recharged groundwater would become the savior of the cities in the case of a drought. His high-level understanding of land and water leaves no room for wondering why Kennedy was adamant about propelling the mission to protect the best farmland in the world.

“If you secure the water, you’ve secured the land and if you’ve secured both you’ve secured the food.”

In 2014, The California Farmland Trust established the Vance Kennedy Award in honor of his leadership and commitment to the protection of farmland. Since 2014, there have been three recipients of the award who have demonstrated strong leadership and commitment to farmland protection.

As a landowner, chemist, biologist and geologist, Kennedy understood the way water and land worked together.

When we sat down for an interview in July, he said if there was one thing to share about him, to let it be this.

“Make sure the farmers get full credit,” Kennedy said. “I can’t persuade anyone to look at the old records of where the water is coming from, but you can make a fairly accurate estimate about how much water is coming from farmers. It hasn’t been done, but it should be.”

Jackman said Kennedy’s involvement in farmland protection was based on the logic that we would have a strategy to protect the farmland and provide that land with the best water.

Vance Kennedy died on August 17, 2023. He lived to be 100 years old but was a man that you would believe had lived a thousand lives. He was a true advocate of agriculture and applied his research to support farmers and Central Valley communities. He is missed by all who had the pleasure of knowing him. Our farmlands are better off because of Vance and his dedication to our cause.