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Giant Water District Prepares to Retire One-Third of Its Farmland

To critics of state and federal water policy in the California, the Westlands Water District symbolizes just about everything that could possibly go wrong with public management of this precious resource. But an $800 million deal that could retire one-third of the farmland in the huge water district might lay to rest one of the most vexing problems associated with Westlands while also ushering in a new era in Western water and land-use practices. Encompassing 604,000 acres on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, Westlands occupies a 70-mile-long strip paralleling Interstate 5 from Mendota on the north to Kettleman City on the south. The district receives only about 7 inches of rain annually, but still manages to produce $1 billion a year in agricultural products. The catalyst for this arid-land alchemy is familiar throughout the West: provision of huge amounts of cheap water through an expensive taxpayer-supported project. In the case of Westlands, that catalyst is the Central Valley Project (CVP), a system of 20 dams and 500 miles of canals and aqueducts built and operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR). The CVP irrigates more than 3 million acres of farmland in the Central Valley and provides domestic water to about 2 million urban residents. Westlands is the nation's largest irrigation district and the CVP's largest customer, with contracts for 1.15 million acre-feet of water a year. Established in 1952, Westlands signed a contract for CVP water in 1963 and a billion-dollar-a-year agricultural empire was established. But Westlands almost immediately began to run afoul of the immutable laws of nature. Thanks to inconvenient geology, which is rapidly helping irrigation transform the valley into a salt-laden wasteland, negotiations are underway that could result in the federal government spending as much as $805 million to buy out owners of 200,000 acres of Westlands farmland and retire it. The geology is fairly simple to understand. As recently as 600,000 years ago, the San Joaquin Valley was a vast, shallow lake. Over millennia, sediments drifting to the bottom of that lake created a thick bed of clay, subsequently buried by debris eroding off the Coast Ranges and the Sierra Nevada. Farmers till the relatively young erosional debris and plant crops in it; the older clay layer traps and holds groundwater just beneath the surface (hydrologists call this "perched" water). Irrigation runoff which becomes salty during its passage through the valley's saline soil percolates into the shallow "perched" aquifer and cannot escape. Over time, the level of saline water has risen until it has begun flooding crop roots from below. Thousands of acres of farmland in the southern San Joaquin Valley have become too salty to farm because of this phenomenon. The problem was identified half a century ago, and the proposed solution was to drain the salty water from the valley and dump it in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where it eventually could mingle with the seawater of San Francisco Bay. The Bureau of Reclamation began construction of the 188-mile drain canal in the early 1970s but growing opposition from the Bay Area halted it in 1975 after only 85 miles had been built. The unfinished drain terminated near Los Banos in Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge, which had been established jointly by the Bureau and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in 1970 to accommodate irrigation drainage and replace waterfowl habitat lost to farming and urbanization. In 1983, however, biologists and refuge workers noticed that ducks, coots, grebes, and stilts born at Kesterson were emerging from their eggs with deformed beaks, missing wings, twisted legs and misshapen skulls. Many died shortly after hatching. Lab tests by Fish & Wildlife determined that the epidemic of death and deformity was the result of unusually high concentrations of selenium, an element that occurs naturally in the Westlands Water District soil (and is widespread throughout the Southwest). An essential nutrient that is toxic in high doses, selenium was picked up by the irrigation runoff flowing from Westlands into the drain, and grew more concentrated in Kesterson as water in the refuge's shallow lake and bordering marshes evaporated under the fierce Central Valley sun. The Bureau of Reclamation shut down the drain in 1986. Since then, most of the salty, selenium-rich water draining off Westlands farms has had no place to go. Political pressure from downstream communities has blocked any solution that would send the contaminated runoff somewhere else. Alternatives that would keep the drainage in the valley such as filtering the tainted runoff, sending the water to evaporation ponds and hauling the brine to landfills would cost more than the land in the irrigation district is worth. A federal report released last month suggested that such treatment could cost as much as $3.8 billion. That same report estimated the proposed land buyout by the federal government which a court ruled two years ago must solve the problem because it never built the drain it had promised (see CP&DR Legal Digest, March 2000) would cost "only" $805 million. Agriculture-dependent Central Valley communities are understandably anxious about the economic impacts of taking so much land out of production. But retirement would serve many goals. It would solve the drainage problem for at least part of the valley. It would enable habitat restoration for plants and animals endangered by agricultural activities. And it would free up a third of the water being used to irrigate Westlands farms. Thirsty urban agencies would pay premium prices for that water, which Westlands will continue to control under its long-term CVP contracts. With agriculture consuming more than 80 percent of California's developed water, it wouldn't take too many deals of that sort to shift enough water from farms to cities to address the state's growing imbalance between demand and supply. And by eliminating crops from all that flat land in the I-5 corridor, conveniently near the booming communities of the Central Valley, the deal suggests a way to shift urban development pressure from truly prime cropland to problematic acreage that probably should not have been farmed in the first place. Contacts: Westlands Water District: (559) 224-1523. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation: (559) 487-5039. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: (209) 946-6400.
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