California’s worsening water situation is changing the face of agriculture. Much of the San Joaquin Valley is already being fallowed for this year due to acute water shortages. There is also the growing prospect that the state’s growing population, diminishing snowpack (still less than 1/3 of normal after a near-average March) and literally collapsing soil (subsiding up to a foot a year as salt levels increase toward the point that nothing can grow) herald permanent changes that will lead to permanent abandonment of some farmland.
In some areas water shortages and related issues are already forcing the retirement of farmland in of one of the world’s great agricultural zones. This apparently inevitable contraction can happen in one of two ways: through disorganized competition or organized cooperation.
In the competitive scenario, increased cost and scarcity of irrigation water may force farmers out of business in a haphazard way that concentrates what little wealth remains in the region and worsens the already dramatic economic displacement underway.
But perhaps the mutual roots of irrigation may provide a pathway for organized retreat. Think of it as consulting blueprints in order to carefully dismantle a structure for reconstruction into a new system, rather than simply bringing in the market’s wrecking ball to shatter the system at its weakest points (where lack of water rights or excessive debt shut down production of land whether or not it makes sense to do so).
Some blend of these approaches is likely, but it seems that if left to its own devices, the invisible hand of the market is going to mostly just shatter a weakened agricultural system and leave us with a vast debris field.
So where to start? Where are the natural joints at which we might start to disassemble this creaky old barn before it collapses under its own weight?
As I have read the news about California’s historic drought, I’ve noticed that the name “Westlands” keeps popping up. I became curious, and I think I may have found a starting point – the eaves of the barn roof, if you will. Westland Water District is a public entity (not a co-op), but it is at heart an old mutual irrigation scheme, of the sort that is dominant throughout the West. Positive collaboration to move beyond farming is already underway even as Westlands members struggle to preserve their agrarian ways of life.
Despite the individualist mythology of the Frontier, development of irrigation in the western United States was highly collectivized. The western system is much different than the chaotic and individualistic system that spread from Europe into the eastern United States, where streams flowing throughout the growing season were quite common and water rights basically came with the land.
Water mutualism were pioneered by the Mormons, who recognized that the eastern “riparian” system would only allow irrigation of the miniscule bit of land with year-round surface water. Groundwater extraction through wells was often unreliable and prone to pollution with salts as well as poisonous minerals like selenium and arsenic – a problem that generally grew worse over time.
By collectivizing water access to divert year-round surface water through aqueducts, arable land was expanded out across the valley floors. So snowmelt from the mountains provided adequate irrigation to grow food for the booming civilization centered around Salt Lake City. It worked and it was copied.
This larger economic system was destroyed at the close of the 19th Century, but irrigation mutuals, cooperatives and districts proved quite adaptable on their own and spread like wildfire across a dry land. Westlands Water District was created in 1952, and now provides water for roughly 600 farmers on 600,000 acres. The district also provides an organizational structure, which is interesting for reasons that I’ll discuss in a moment.
Where is Westlands?
Understanding Westlands’ location is crucial to grasping its problems and opportunities. The district sits in Fresno County, on relatively high ground on the western side of the San Joaquin Valley. A quick glance at a map suggests that it would be a rather unremarkable spot in the middle reaches of the valley’s namesake river.
In fact, Westlands is only marginally in the San Joaquin watershed, perched on high land between that watershed and the Tulare Basin. To the east of its southern portion, the Kings River actually splits and flows both north into the San Joaquin and south through a number of distributaries.
From the southern end of Westlands, water flows (when there is enough rain) into the Tulare Basin, which was once the largest lake west of the Mississippi River before water diversion dried it up. This lake was a major source of fish and turtles during the 19th Century and was large enough to serve as a military floatplane base as late as World War II.
Westlands Water District has very poor drainage. Whatever rainfall makes it past Big Sur and the Diablo Mountain Range to this naturally dry rainshadow tends to soak into the ground rather than running into a creek and eventually a river. This is fine with rainwater, which is relatively pure.
On the other hand, irrigation water sometimes comes from mineral-rich wells and usually receives added contamination from pesticides and fertilizers. So its evaporation leads to increasingly toxic and saline soils. Salinization is a problem for irrigated agriculture everywhere, but the San Joaquin Valley appears to present an unusually acute case.
It’s important for us to remember that agriculture in this part of the world has been a relatively short experiment. And this experiment appears to be leading toward a conclusion that it wasn’t such a great idea to farm there. So how do we extricate ourselves?
Sharing the Burden
Westlands is a sort of high point in the overarching structure – the barn – in its size and location as well as the urgency of its problems. And is therefore worth consideration as a point to begin the disassembly and reconstruction of San Joaquin agriculture.
Westlands’ own “History” page acknowledges that something has to give: “Westlands also faces significant drainage problems. Approximately one third of the district does not drain properly. As a result, salt present in the water imported from the Delta accumulates in the soil.”
Westlands blames this problem on the Federal government’s failure to provide drainage since the closure of the San Luis Drain, which was shut down in 1986 after its outflow proved devastating to birds in the Kesterton Reservoir, into which it drained.
It’s hard to see how a new drainage scheme will work without some sort of water treatment, but Westlands has a point: Its members were led to believe that drainage would be provided. So they made decisions and investments based on the assumption of drainage.
And at the same time, drainage cannot be provided without some dramatic changes. It’s been nearly 30 years now, and it’s time to admit that the San Luis Drain ain’t coming back in its old form. There would be simply too much clamor from those downstream.
Yes, Westlands is only a small portion of the overall problem, but – fairly or unfairly – its reliance on a hypothetical drain creates for it a higher bar than other farmers whose runoff may be just as toxic but can flow freely into a self-draining river.
These dramatic challenges – common throughout the valley but aggravated by Westlands’ history and expectations surrounding the drainage issue – demand some sort of collective response. So it is hypothetically possible that Westlands might provide a structure for either conversion to farming practices that produce much less runoff, and especially less-toxic runoff. And to some extent, Westlands could conceivably provide a structure for buying out some of its members with less-suitable land.
It is obvious that a group of struggling farmers on land that was always marginal cannot bear the cost by themselves during a multi-year drought. Fortunately, there is ample precedent for government assistance to farmers to not plant. These subsidies are sometimes controversial, but it seems that if there were ever a time to use government assistance, it is in this sort of large-scale transition where individual acts are overwhelmed by market forces. Rather than simply easing the current pain, funds might be used to develop a new reality.
Westlands has already recognized that its current route is unsustainable. To their credit, members are already retiring tens of thousand so acres of farmland.
But more interesting, Westlands is also exploring the creation of a solar farm project within the district. I don’t see any evidence that the new organization is using a cooperative structure to develop the solar facilities, but there is at least an element of collective problem solving that echoes the original organizing of the district by the current members’ grandparents.
Allow me to think ahead a bit:
What if solar developments provide the means for compensating those farmers whose fields are closest to forced retirement? What if Westlands is able to develop a structure through which its members can gain temporary subsidy as they manage an organized contraction – perhaps even developing a structure for subdividing those fields most suitable for dry farming, while also moving toward more sustainable practices that produce less-toxic runoff that could be further treated before it is sent down a reopened San Luis Drain? What if Westlands is able to serve as a pilot project for how irrigation districts can move into a new field of production?
I am just scratching the surface here, but it seems like Westlands is going to be a key location in the growing water struggles in this state. I’m glad to see that they are engaged in some shared problem-solving and hope that we might be able to all learn from their experience as we struggle to change California’s troubled relationship with water.