Can Central Valley Agriculture Work?

I was surprised to discover that the culprit behind San Joaquin Valley's water shortage doesn't wear a suit to work or vote on legislation. It is the rare Delta Smelt.
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Speeding through the San Joaquin Valley on I-5 last weekend, I was shocked to see acre upon acre of parched farmland-- largely empty fields alternated with rows of dead fruit trees, dust whirling around their trunks in the arid climate. The rather lifeless scenery was punctuated by bright yellow signs, perched every so often along the interstate, proclaiming the area a "Congress Created Dust Bowl."

Intrigued, I turned to my trusty yet voyeuristic e-companion Google for an explanation of the area's obvious plant thirst. I was surprised to discover that the culprit behind San Joaquin Valley's water shortage doesn't wear a suit to work or vote on legislation. In fact its commute, if one could call it that, is a yearly affair completed underwater. It is the rare Delta Smelt -- an endangered indicator species native to California's Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

What does this wiggly little 2-inch fellow have to do with all of those dead fruit trees? According to a 2008 San Francisco Chronicle article on the topic:

As a result of this fish mania, US District Judge Oliver Wanger ordered cuts in the amount of water pumped out of the delta in January of 2007. His decision served to reduce the water exports of the State Water Project by 25-30% in 2008. That's enough to cover 730,000 acres in a foot of water, according to the same San Francisco Chronicle article.

Now fast forward two and a half years and take a look at California's supposed salad bowl. It's looking a little empty. So empty that the L.A. Times recently ran a front page article on the valley's suffering farms.

"Statewide runoff - the amount of rainfall and snow melt that ends up in rivers and streams - was 53% of normal in 2008, said Lester Snow, director of the California Department of Water Resources. The federal government -run water supply allotted only half the water that farmers south of the delta had been expecting in 2007 and 40% in 2008. . .
Lost farm revenue will top $900 million in the San Joaquin Valley this year, said UC Davis economist Richard Howitt, who estimates that water woes will cost the recession-battered region an additional 30,000 jobs in 2009".

This water mayhem translated into a 15.4% unemployment rate for Fresno County in the month of May-- a good 4% above the rate for the entire state of California. But even this figure may be misleading of agricultural employment rates. In the small farm town of Mendota, joblessness is even higher. 39% of its 10,000 residents are unemployed. That's bad news for California's already suffering economy.

Despite farmer-organized protests, there is little evidence that their water will be turned back on anytime in the near future. Assuming the protection of Delta Smelt is upheld, the San Joaquin Valley will be forced to draw its water from other sources. That's a tricky task in the valley's already arid climate. One made even trickier by it's already over-tapped groundwater supplies.

The steep reduction in the region's aquifers has caused the land above it to sink, reducing the holding capacities of the underground reservoirs and running the risk of rendering existing water canals throughout the region inoperable. In the already beleaguered Mendota, the report found 29 feet of land subsidence. One can't help but feel that it's just about time for valley farmers to make a change.

What is a valley farmer to do? A more streamlined, and less wasteful approach to irrigation is a must. Uncovered canals, running the length of the state, just beg for water loss through evaporation. But even with major efficiency improvements, the San Joaquin Valley will need some help. The answer may lie to the west, in the form of the Pacific Ocean. Desalinization-- a purification process long-used by Middle Eastern nations-- seems the only viable way of supplying enough water to keep San Joaquin Valley agriculture alive.

Although the process is expensive and requires a large amount of energy for operation, researchers have made recent progress in developing new cost-cutting technology. Additionally, private companies like Connecticut-based Poseidon Resources Corp. are already working to establish desalinization plants in Southern California. In fact, Poseidon plans to begin distributing desalinated drinking water from its Carlsbad, CA plant as early as 2010, according to an article by the Wall Street Journal.

In the meantime, California shoppers should prepare to pay more for local produce as the supply of our favorite salad greens dips sharply. Even within the framework of a major desalinization or waste water reclamation network, the cost of produce will be significantly higher than it is today as water importation increases the costs to farmers of growing crops. Environmentally, it will be well worth the extra costs.

Even if we feel no sympathy for the welfare of forlorn farmers staring longingly into the camera and speaking passionately about the untapped fertility of their barren land, the problem of agricultural sourcing arises. Without enough water flow into the San Joaquin Valley, plump red tomatoes and juicy melons will be more and more frequently imported into California supermarkets- in all likelihood from foreign locales with low labor costs (read South America)-- upping the environmental footprint of the average produce muncher and putting more pollution into our precious oceans. Let's see how those little smelt like that.

In the face of changing climate conditions and increasing California drought, the responsibility for preserving California's flailing agricultural sector ultimately rests on the shoulders of its shoppers. We must be willing to pay extra for local produce, not only to help protect our state's already strained farmers, but to eliminate unnecessary pollution and help lighten the load on our wheezing planet.

If, as they say, there is no such thing as a free lunch, let's opt instead for a socially and environmentally conscious lunch.

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