California Drought: Central Valley Farmland on its Last Legs

Carolyn Lochhead
March 24, 2014

Atwell Island Sanctuary in Alpaugh, CA
As part of a Alpaugh High School biology class project, 10th grader Alondra Bernal, left, marks down data while checking on a plot where students have planted native plants as substitute teacher Mrs. Atwell looks on at the Atwell Island Sanctuary in Alpaugh, CA, Thursday, March 20, 2014. Farmer Jack Mitchell has sold about 2000 acres of his ranch to the Atwell Island Sanctuary which, through the Bureau of Land Management, is turning former farm land in the San Joaquin Valley back to it’s natural pre-agraculture state.
Photo: Michael Short, The Chronicle

Drought, degradation

“The sad fact of the matter is that everybody knows the plight of many of these species,” said Patrick Kelly, a zoologist at California State University Stanislaus who worked on the plots. Endangered animals and plants found at the sites, he said, range “from the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, a very magnificent large lizard that is only above ground for about six months of the year at most, to the San Joaquin kit fox, one of most beautiful canines in North America, to various species of kangaroo rats and various types of flowers like the California jewel flower.”

The drought is taking a terrible toll on all of them, Kelly said, but the main reason for their predicament is “a loss and fragmentation and degradation of habitat.”

The San Joaquin Valley is an ancient seabed arid enough to be classified as desert but irrigated by a huge complex of dams and canals. Large swaths of it have serious drainage problems, including more than 1.75 million acres of farmland, according to a 2005 federal report.

Much of the problem land lies on the valley’s west side, represented primarily by Westlands. More than half its acreage has been classified as drainage-impaired.

In 2006, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that despite hundreds of millions of federal dollars spent over two decades, no technological solution had been found to dispose of drain water. Enormous amounts of salt and selenium – toxic to birds, other wildlife and humans at high concentrations – continue to accumulate each year.

land with poor drainage

Kesterson disaster

Proposals have included a drain to carry the water to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. It was partly built but was shut down after the drain water killed and deformed thousands of internationally protected migratory birds in a 1983 disaster at the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge.

Another plan, since scrapped, was to build a giant drain over the coastal range to Morro Bay in San Luis Obispo County. Other plans include concentrating the drain water in thousands of acres of evaporation ponds, which federal officials have warned would pose a lethal threat to wildlife.

The Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that the best solution is to “remove the fundamental underlying source of the problem” by retiring 379,000 acres of land from irrigation.

In 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey warned that within 50 years, 20 million tons of contaminated salt will have to be disposed of. The agency said experimental technologies are “unprecedented and untested at the scale needed” and that the “potential release of selenium-contaminated drainage is massive.” The agency concluded that the best solution would be to retire 300,000 acres in the western San Joaquin Valley.

Westlands retirements

In 2001, the Westlands Water District was in negotiations with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to retire 200,000 acres of land in exchange for a guaranteed water supply from the federally run Central Valley Project. Westlands issued a paper titled “Why Land Retirement Makes Sense for Westlands Water District,” saying the west side of the valley is “severely affected” by drainage problems.

Bull Rushes are seen in the water of the wetlands at the Atwell Island Sanctuary in Alpaugh, CA, Thursday, March 20, 2014.  Farmer Jack Mitchell has sold about 2000 acres of his ranch to the Atwell Island Sanctuary which, through the Bureau of Land Management, is turning former farm land in the San Joaquin Valley back to it's natural pre-agraculture state. Photo: Michael Short, The Chronicle
Bull Rushes are seen in the water of the wetlands at the Atwell Island Sanctuary in Alpaugh, CA, Thursday, March 20, 2014. Farmer Jack Mitchell has sold about 2000 acres of his ranch to the Atwell Island Sanctuary which, through the Bureau of Land Management, is turning former farm land in the San Joaquin Valley back to it’s natural pre-agraculture state. Photo: Michael Short, The Chronicle

Westlands manager Tom Birmingham, who did not respond to requests for an interview, wrote an opinion piece in 2002 touting the benefits of land retirement as “significant.”

The paper has been removed from the Westlands website and nothing came of the negotiations. Thousands of Westlands acres have already been retired in various legal settlements with the federal government, which is obligated by Congress to provide drainage for farms in the district.

Westlands spokeswoman Gayle Holman put the tally at 88,000 acres, some converted to sheep grazing or dry-land farming, a low-yield method that relies on seasonal rains.

“Our goal is to continue farming the land,” Holman said. “We have some of the best land in the world.”

Right to farm

Holman called suggestions of land retirement “a little unsettling. … Growers have an opportunity and a right to farm just as much as anyone else, regardless of area. There’s a viable need for it and a product produced that quite frankly feeds the nation.”

The district now has on its website a proposal for a “Westlands Solar Park” to build solar power panels on 24,000 acres of farmland.

In some areas of the valley, salt has crystallized on the surface, covering fields with what is known as “California snow,” rendering the ground useless not just for crops but also for any vegetation at all.

Retiring lands before they reach that point “has just got to be the highest priority for California,” said Tom Stokely, a water policy analyst for California Water Impact Network, an environmental group. “We don’t have the water to be irrigating these poisoned lands. We’re having a hard enough time keeping the good lands in production.”

Carolyn Lochhead is The San Francisco Chronicle’s Washington correspondent. E-mail: clochhead@sfchronicle.com