[env-trinity] AP- Though land is poisoned, California water districts lock in supplies

tstokely at trinityalps.net tstokely at trinityalps.net
Wed Mar 16 11:20:59 PST 2005

Though land is poisoned, California water districts lock in supplies


By: JULIANA BARBASSA - Associated Press Writer 

MENDOTA, Calif. (AP) -- When Miguel Gonzalez looks out over the flat,
barren field that seems to stretch from his front door to the distant
Sierra Nevada, he sees 38 years of "eating dirt, night and day, behind a

The hard work provided him with one in a row of tidy cream-colored houses
on the farm near Mendota where Gonzalez, his wife Maria, and other families
have lived for decades. But now they have to leave. The land is useless for
farming, poisoned by years of irrigation with salty water pumped in from
the San Joaquin-Sacramento river delta, more than 100 miles away. 

"It's the water here. It's bad, salty," said Sixto Rodriguez, who like
Gonzalez, has until August to uproot his family and find a new job. Reyes
Rodriguez, Sixto's nephew, also is being forced out.

On the west side of California's wide and thirsty Central Valley, salt
damage is inexorably taking tens of thousands of acres out of production.

Some see this as an opportunity to free up the water for other uses.
Instead, irrigation districts are quietly renegotiating contracts with the
federal government that lock in -- for at least 25 more years -- control
over the same amount of subsidized water they've received for 40 years.

What it amounts to, critics say, is a government giveaway, guaranteeing the
districts a stream of profits for decades to come -- perhaps even after the
land involved is no longer farmed.

The land Gonzalez and Rodriguez have worked since the late 1960s is owned
by the Murrieta Westlands Trust, a farm owned by a conglomerate of 23
individuals and trusts. Their representative, Ron Delforno, declined to
comment on this story.

But the slow poisoning of the fields near Mendota is neither unique nor
surprising. When the federal government built the Central Valley Project,
bringing Northern California water to the inhospitable desert west of the
San Joaquin River, officials knew about one-third of the nearly 600,000
acres served by Westlands Irrigation District had drainage problems.

In the decades since then, salt in the brackish water has gathered near the
soil's surface, gradually ruining land for farming and ultimately
eliminating some of the jobs it once created.

The irrigation district has taken 108,000 acres out of production, some of
it with the help of a federal buyout. That deal compensated the landowners,
let Westlands send the water to other more productive farms -- and is
leaving people like Gonzalez without homes or jobs.

Critics point out that in other areas, urban development, environmental
concerns and economic pressures are pulling farmland out of production, and
increasing the demand for water. It's time for the federal government to
reevaluate the old system of dividing up the region's water supply, they

Critics like Barry Nelson, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, say
these contracts are "locking in Depression-era water policies" at a time
when the state's needs are changing.

Despite this, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in the last few weeks has
signed about 200 similar contracts with irrigation districts served by the
Central Valley Project, largely guaranteeing them the same deliveries
they've received for decades. None involve as much water as Westlands, the
largest irrigation district in the country.

Environmental advocates are protesting.

"It's pretty clear: If you're farming less land, you need less water," said
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who has tried to reform the Central Valley
Project. "The Bush administration is giving these water districts the same
amount of cheap water they've been getting for decades. These
agribusinesses get to turn around and sell the extra water and make a big
profit that really belongs to the taxpayers who own the water."

Westlands expects to sign its contract renewal by summer, locking in
deliveries of as much as 1.15 million acre-feet annually, enough to supply
about 2.3 million homes for a year.

Authorized in 1936, the Central Valley Project was built with $3.2 billion
in federal money to pump water from the delta of the San Joaquin and
Sacramento rivers and deliver it to the valley's wide-open fields. Back
then, farming led the state's economy, and large, expensive projects like
the CVP were justified by the need to create jobs and develop land.

The plan worked. Agriculture in the state now generates more than $27.8
billion a year. The Central Valley grows much of the fresh produce that
ends up on dinner tables across the United States, and farms served by
Westlands contribute to that bounty.

For several weeks during the spring and fall, most of the lettuce grown
domestically comes from farms served by Westlands, and the area produces
enough tomatoes in the average year to fill about 5 billion bottles of
ketchup. Farmers in the area take pride in supplying the country with safe,
domestically grown food.

Within Westlands, farms are also the largest employers, hiring up to 18,000
workers a season, even though 750 workers lost their jobs in the area when
land was taken out of farming between 2001 and 2003, and hundreds more,
among them Gonzalez, Sixto and Reyes Rodriguez and their families, are
still being pushed out.

So far, no water has been sold out of Westlands. In fact, the district has
to pump out of the ground or buy at market rates up to 400,000 acre-feet of
water a year. This supplements its deliveries from the CVP, which were
historically never enough to irrigate the entire district.

Some Westlands-area farmers, like Brad Gleason, say the answer to the
state's water shortage is not to push out agriculture, but to stabilize
water deliveries, and use water more efficiently, growing permanent,
higher-value crops like almonds instead of subsidized, surplus crops like

"Reliability is a huge issue for the farms in Westlands," said spokesman
Tupper Hull. Farmers can't invest in long term improvements, such as
efficient drip irrigation technology, or in tree crops like nuts and stone
fruit, if there isn't a guaranteed water supply, Hull said.

Sitting outside his home in the soft morning sun, Sixto Rodriguez doesn't
know the details of deals being cut.

But he does know that this year, they're not seeding the cotton, tomatoes
and alfalfa he's harvested for so long. And he worries about the future.

"I left my life here," said Gonzalez. "I'm old now. If I can't work here,
what am I going to do?"

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