Special to The Bee
Published Saturday, May. 12, 2012
Deirdre Des Jardins, a researcher with California Water Research Associates, and Jane Wagner-Tyack, a policy analyst with Restore the Delta, are responding to the May 8 Viewpoints column, “Legislation would restore water, balance to to west-side Valley farmers.”
That column, written by Thomas W. Birmingham of the Westlands Water District, stated that “Farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley do not want to steal anyone’s water. They merely want to regain access to the water in a full Shasta Reservoir that they are paying for.”
Birmingham asks whether we are going to sustain irrigated agriculture on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. The irrigated agriculture he wants to sustain is a particularly thirsty kind, and he wants to do it by ensuring an unsustainable level of federal Central Valley Project (CVP) water exports, at an unsustainable cost to taxpayers.
Westlands Water District is part of the last area of the San Joaquin Valley to get contracts for water from the Delta, so it is the first to have deliveries reduced in dry years.
Research shows that actual CVP deliveries to Westlands have always been variable, reflecting the fact that its contracts are for surplus water. Shasta Lake may be full, but there are carryover storage needs and senior water rights holders in line ahead of Westlands for water deliveries.
Trying to grow thirsty crops like cotton in what is essentially desert has severely degraded west-side soil. Westlands has a known problem with lack of drainage and accumulation of salts in the soil that has led to the retirement of over 100,000 acres in the district and will cause another 100,000 acres to go out of production in the next two decades.
Meanwhile, taxpayers have been paying huge crop subsidies for Westlands to grow cotton. Taxpayers also pay for crop insurance and disaster payments when the inevitable drought hits. Subsidies for the cost of water and the electricity needed to transport it long distances encourage wasteful uses, such as flood-irrigating alfalfa fields or using water to “plump” garlic bulbs prior to harvest.
Given the variable water supply and the lack of supplemental local supplies or decent groundwater on the west side, it has been a bad business decision for Westlands growers to plant 110,000 acres of permanent crops such as almonds.
These crops take the entire allocation for the district in dry or below-normal years. The economic pain being suffered by people on the west side results from decades of decisions by absentee landowners to maximize profits over sustainability.
It’s not in the interests of the state to sacrifice prime Delta farmland, the Delta ecosystem, or the West Coast salmon fishing industry so farmers on the west side can continue to grow crops unsuited to the climate, soil or water supply.
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