[env-trinity] Newsweek Article on Western San Joaquin Valley

Tom Stokely tstokely at att.net
Tue Sep 1 11:38:55 PDT 2009


http://www.newsweek.com/id/211381
© 2009
Dying on the Vine
As another water war rages, the west side of California's storied San
Joaquin Valley waits for relief that may not come.
By Katie Paul | Newsweek Web Exclusive
Aug 24, 2009 | Updated: 2:08 p.m. ET Aug 24, 2009

Playing cards and a small wad of dollar bills sit on a pool table at Los
Kiki, a dusty pool hall at the end of the main drag in Mendota, Calif. A
breeze blows through a broken window, past six men hunched over the table,
beer bottles in their hands. It is middle of a Wednesday afternoon. A year
ago, they would have been out planting and pruning in the vast fields of
grapes, tomatoes, onions, and nut trees that fan out from the city limits.
But this year, many of those fields are lying fallow, and the men at Los
Kiki are out of work.

"Before, it was good. There were jobs eight months, 10 months out of the
year. Now, nothing," says Luis Cortez, 52. Others nod in agreement. Cortez
says he has worked just three days all year.

Mendota touts itself as the cantaloupe capital of the world, but its de
facto motto is far less optimistic. "No water, no work" is the refrain
repeated everywhere here in the western reaches of the San Joaquin Valley.
The unemployment rate in this 10,000-person town was an unfathomable 38
percent in July (including documented and undocumented workers). Nearly all
those who have lost their jobs are farm workers, who often straddle the
poverty line even in boom times. The result is a cruel irony: in the region
that produces more food than anywhere else in the country, food lines have
become regular fixtures, drawing hundreds, sometimes thousands.

After three years of drought, California's legendary water wars are flaring
once again, and towns like Mendota, San Joaquin, and Firebaugh are getting
a first glimpse of what their future might look like. Farmers blame the
area's blight on a "man-made drought" brought on by increasingly strict
environmental regulations, but that is only the beginning of the story.
There's also the crushing confluence of political negligence, drought, and
a century's worth of unbridled growth. Now, as residents wonder if normalcy
will ever return, planners are forced to consider a far uglier question:
should it? Is a new "normal" required?

That towns like Mendota even exist reflects the extraordinary ambition that
built the American West. A century ago, much of the San Joaquin Valley was
an undeveloped dust bowl, its few small farming communities clustered
around natural water sources. Today, it is a green expanse of agricultural
empires. Most of the water that has irrigated these seemingly endless
fields comes from northern California, diverted by an epic system of dams
and canals born from New Deal funds. It was one of the most ambitious water
systems ever built, and the San Joaquin Valley became, in the words of
historian Kevin Starr, "the most productive unnatural environment on
Earth."

The valley is home to a $20 billion crop industry; the San Joaquin region
alone produces more in farm sales than any other individual state in the
country. Mark Borba, 59, has a big stake in that business, just as his
grandparents did in the valley's development. Borba Farms started off with
about 20 milk cows and 30 acres of land in 1910, at a time when farmers who
had tapped an underground aquifer were kicking off a race to cultivate. The
farm now covers 10,000 acres, and Mark Borba is only one of 600 growers in
the Westlands Water District, a water-contracting group of farmers and
landowners on the far west side of the valley where Mendota and other towns
sit. By the time Borba took over his family's operation in the 1970s, the
valley was already supplying 25 percent of the country's food.

Making that explosive growth possible is access to water delivered through
an increasingly byzantine system centered on the Sacramento­San Joaquin
Delta, a thousand-square-mile web of channels, islands, and levees where
the two rivers meet before flowing into the San Francisco Bay. From there,
giant dams and pumps suck the water southward through veinlike aqueducts to
25 million people and more than 5 million acres of farmland. But not all
water consumers are created equally. In fact, access to the water is
essentially based on a squatters' rights notion: "First in rights, first in
time." In other words, whoever signed up for a water contract first got the
best guarantees. Latecomers got junior rights, meaning they'd be the first
to get cut in a dry. Westlands, which has a contract for water delivery
with the federal government, is the most junior of the bunch.

It was complicated and costly, but for a long time, the system worked. Over
the last three decades, however, the valley's explosive growth has caused
rivers to run dry, dead fish to accumulate near the water pumps, and
chronic water shortages. The levees near the bay are old, prompting worries
that a failure, perhaps following an earthquake, could cause salt water
from the bay to rush into the delta, crippling the water supply for the
entire state. And the delta smelt, an endangered species of fish no bigger
than an index finger, began disappearing as the massive pumps sucked up
fish along with the water it was sending south. Lawsuits over the fish
filed by environmental groups and water contractors multiplied, and
court-imposed restrictions and regulations began siphoning off more and
more of the 6 million acre-feet of water exported through the river basin
each year.
Most people in the valley blame their water woes on those lawsuits and the
fish. Since 1992, when Congress established new federal ecosystem
standards, increasing amounts of water have been set aside for wildlife
restoration. Since then, Westlands has received on average about half as
much water as the 1.2 million acre-feet per year it ordered up in its
contract, forcing farmers to rely on expensive pumps that suck up water
from the aquefier and water transfers from their better-connected
competitors to the east. This year, Westlands is down to nearly nothing,
and its farmers are livid. Federal officials slashed the district's
allocation to zero at the beginning of the season; only after a furious
lobbying campaign did they succeed in bumping it up to 10 percent of the
water deliveries stipulated in their contract. A University of California,
Berkeley analysis claims that the economic impact of the water reductions
on the valley's agricultural production tops $48 million. That figure will
likely get worse once the water agencies begin implementing new rules this
summer designed to protect other fish such as sturgeon, salmon, and
steelhead trout. In a normal year, such a hit is difficult, says Sarah
Woolf, a Westlands District spokeswoman. After three years of natural
drought, she says, it's ruinous.

But Barry Nelson, the Natural Resources Defense Council advocate behind the
fish lawsuits, says the fish vs. people argument is nonsense. Even after
three years of drought, the Central Valley Project (CVP) is still making
half of its water deliveries to farms in the valley. Westlands just isn't
getting that water. "There's a myth in the valley about the delta smelt,
and it's really a tragedy," he says. "I don't mean for a moment to suggest
that those small communities on the west side aren't seeing impacts; they
are. They're seeing the impact of drought, and those impacts are real and
they're hard." Nelson contends that the fish aren't the problem; it's the
way the system is set up. Just adjacent to Westlands, he says, four other
contractors are getting a full 100 percent of their water allocation this
year, despite the drought. And while Westlands has adopted some of the most
water-efficient irrigation methods in the business, other farmers in the
valley with senior water rights are under no pressure to conserve. The
result is a patchwork valley, where a Westlands farmer like Mark Borba is
forced to fallow land while his neighbor has excess water that he can sell
at a hefty profit. Buying that excess and pumping water from underground is
sustainable to a point, says Borba. But the expenses of the underground water long term.

But that may be all that the Westlands district can hope for. Climate
models by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, the state's water
resources agency, and researchers at the University of California, Davis
all point to the same trend: the Sierra snowcaps that supply the state's
water are disappearing. If that's the case, farmers should expect droughts
more frequently, and Westlands may have to come around to the notion that
they will never receive all the water that their contracts call for. "No
drought comes to you with a label that says, 'Brought to you by climate
change,' " says Nelson. "But in the American Southwest and in California,
we should be prepared for a drier future."

To at least a few teams of researchers, ending the conversation with a
doomsday prediction for agriculture on the west side of the valley is
insufficient. Like the farmers and engineers who, a century ago, looked at
the desert and imagined farms, these teams, which pull together researchers
at federal and state agencies, California universities, and think tanks
into a planning group called the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), say a
good plan and some new hardware is all the valley needs to conquer its
water challenge. They are likely to suggest building a new "peripheral"
canal that would transport northern water around the delta, rather than
through it, to restore its battered ecosystem.
To farmers like Borba, that's the kind of investment worth making. "I've
traveled all over the world seen an agricultural resource like we have in the San Joaquin Valley. The
soils, the climate, the crop variability. We've got 300 crops we can grow
here. You can't find that just anywhere," he says. "So I have a hard time
saying, for lack of the will, that we should neuter the most productive
agricultural resource in the world. I don't think that's where America
wants to go."

North of the valley, where the canal would be built, not everyone is so
enthusiastic. Opponents, who beat back the idea in a 1982 referendum, see
it as a destructive, expensive water grab by southern users. They have a
point; according to the BDCP and the federal Bureau of Reclamation,
preliminary construction-cost estimates for the two biggest projects under
consideration are $13 billion, a price tag California is hardly in a
position to bear in its present state. Other critics, like Nelson, say the
drop in water supply caused by climate change would render such
mega-investments moot. The better bet, they argue, is an aggressive push
for water-conservation standards. Yet others, like the University of the
Pacific's Jeffrey Michael, who does business forecasting, note that the
issues facing Westlands are hardly valley-wide problems. Rather, he says,
farm employment this year has actually gone up, making it one of the few
success stories in a region pummeled by the mortgage crisis. Still, support
for the idea might be building steam. The BDCP has missed benchmarks, but
there's evidence the governor's office is behind the idea. State officials
recently announced they intend to start preliminary drilling for ground
tests this month, while state lawmakers recently unveiled five new major
water bills focused on the delta.

Even if that comes through, though, there's no guarantee all of Westlands
would reap the benefits. As productive as the farms in the district have
been, bad drainage underneath means the soil fills up with salt, boron,
selenium, and other minerals quickly as a drought. A drainage system could address the problem, but,
again, nobody seems to want to pay for one. Instead, starting in 2000,
Westlands and the Bureau of Reclamation negotiated a deal to permanently
retire from farming 100,000 acres of land in the district in return for
compensation from the federal government. "There's a reason some of the
land in Westlands was the last land in California to be irrigated," says
Nelson, the NRDC analyst. "The land that was retired a few years ago has
already salted up. It looks like it snowed." That might be just the
beginning; federal agencies estimate the number should be two to four times
that amount.

All of this leaves the valley's west side caught in a painful limbo until
California answers big questions about where and how it wants to make use
of its resources. In the meantime, some economic planners are eyeing the
area as a potential clean energy source where almond farms could be
transformed into solar farms. Those plans, too, are preliminary. "It took a
century of bad decisions to get us here. The good news is, we are on the
verge of making some major changes on what we're going to do about it,"
says Jeff Mount, a water-geology researcher at UC Davis who supports the
peripheral canal proposal. "So, yes, the valley's farm economy itself is
probably going to shrink some. But that may not be a bad thing in the long
run. And it may be an inevitable thing."

Such talk makes 34-year-old Dora Chavarria wonder about her future. She was
born in Mendota, the daughter of a field worker who arrived there 38 years
ago, worked the fields, and saved enough money to open up an auto shop.
She's climbed the social ladder yet another rung, working at a program for
immigrant families in the Firebaugh school system. Chavarria recalls a time
when she could be proud of Mendota; when people filled the streets, when
her father would drive her around in trucks filled with tomatoes from the
surrounding fields, when musical acts would pass through town, and when the
melon-capital claim rang true. It's been a long time since that was the
case; for more than a decade, the streets have been empty and dangerous,
she says, and getting worse as people head for Las Vegas and Los Angeles in
search of work. Chavarria doesn't let her children out alone, and now her
husband wants to leave, too.

To keep the town alive, Mendota's leaders have, in their own way, started
to think about alternatives to agriculture. Mayor Robert Silva says the
best bet is the federal prison under construction on the outskirts of town,
a project he courted, thinking it will spark an economic revival as hotels
and restaurants spring up to accommodate prison visitors.As the town waits
to see if Silva's development predictions come true, residents face a
crushing tide. This summer, the town's only bank announced it was shutting
down because of insufficient deposits. As the public schools lose students,
officials worry funding cuts will follow. Most eerily, around the outskirts
of town, billboards and flags advertise the empty, unfinished development
of single-family homes with bright green lawns, constant reminders that, on
more than one front, foresight has been hard to come by in the valley.
Still, Chavarria is not ready to give up on Mendota just yet. "It's just
slowly dying, and we can't let that happen. This is my heritage," she says.
"Change is good, and hopefully something better comes along. But if we
don't stay here to make that change, then the change is never going to
happen."

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