html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: A short term solution at best.

Monday, July 10, 2006

A short term solution at best.

I love irrigated agriculture. When I drive to southern California, I’ll add hours to my trip by taking county roads. I’m as interested in the thirtieth field of cotton as I am in the first. If you were with me and noticed that I’ve fallen silent, it is not because I am tired of the drive. Nope, I’m trying to figure out if the spacing on those hand-move sprinklers is why that stand of tomatoes looks behind. I love the look of working landscapes and not just the picturesque ones either. I’m a born Californian; parched gold foothills behind geometric lines of truck crops look lonely and gorgeous and utterly right.

When I went to CalPoly we took field trips to big and little farms all over the San Joaquin Valley; that summer I hit another thirty farms in the Sacramento Valley doing irrigation system evaluations. I wasn’t entirely upfront about being a rabid environmentalist from Berkeley; in fact, I may have entirely neglected to mention that. It was certainly no coincidence I wore a CalPoly school of engineering shirt every single day. That shirt is the secret handshake to working in the Central Valley. I loved walking fields in the heat, talking to growers and pickers and irrigators. I loved driving a dusty truck full of gear that I knew how to use.

So when people who just read Cadillac Desert for the first time get real righteous about agribusiness millionaires farming in the desert with subsidized water, I sort of hem and haw and say something about it being ‘complex’. It is complex. Up in the Sacramento Valley, I’d work in some gorgeous orchard. The strips between the trees would be full of flowers for pollinators, frogs would jump away from my steps, spiders would hang webs between the trees. Those lovely farms? Inadequate irrigation systems, “wasting” delivered water, uneven crop yields. On the west side of the San Joaquin, which you drive through on the 5? Those huge even fields are horrible places to be, straight-up factories, biodiversity wastelands and you know what else? They have got some excellent irrigation systems. Those agribusiness millionaires can afford to buy drip systems and fix small leaks. Their crop yield to irrigation water ratios are remarkably high.

So I’m not reflexively against Big Ag, but when I read that the Bureau of Reclamation may be re-opening the Kesterson drain*, my first thought was “Are they out of their fucking minds?”. They aren’t out of their fucking minds; they have no good choices. A judge has held the feds to their 1960’s promise of a drain for the west side of the Valley and there are no good options. Pipe drainwater over the Coast Range to the ocean ($!) and deform the fish there? Put in the already collapsing south Delta, which most of southern California’s drinking water flows through? Put it offstream somewhere and let it evaporate? That’s the best of some bad options and we call it Kesterson.

There’s another solution. Stop irrigating soils high in selenium. The problem is so Coasian it almost hurts to contemplate engineering solutions. Given my green biases, you won’t be surprised to hear that I think farmers should pay the public for the right to consume freshwater and dispose of drainwater. But instead the feds are desperately trying to find ways to pay those growers not to farm; land retirement is politically anathema. The growers are opposed to selling out, leaving their farming lifestyle, walking away from their lands. They are fools not to take this offer, though. As you drive down the 5, you can see fields that look covered in a light snowfall. Those are salt drifts. It is absurd to build a drain to hold poisonous water from fields that will be unfarmable in a generation or less.

7/12: More on fallowing in Westlands.

*If you irrigate land, you have to drain it as well or salts accumulate. When Reclamation built a canal to provide water to the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, they promised the growers there a drain. The first time they tried to provide that drain, they built a huge marsh and filled it with tailwater from west side farms. Turns out that west side soils are naturally high in selenium, which accumulated in the Kesterson drain. Two short years later, living creatures in the water started showing unbelievable deformities.


Anonymous Sarah said...

That's really interesting! I love how I learn something new when you write about your field of expertise. There's so much to know about, isn't there?

6:56 PM  
Blogger Aaronlane said...

Look everyone, I found a spoon outside!

I have no idea what all that was about. I read the whole thing and was interested but was waiting for something about wine.

I enjoy water too, though.

8:37 PM  
Anonymous mitch said...

I've wondered about those white-looking fields. I'll drive by and think, "that cant possibly be salt, right?" Sometimes I say this out loud, and get strange looks from my traveling compainions. Do the farmers think that a good drainage system would let them get rid of that salt, or at least prevent more buildup? They have to know that continuing the status quo will leave them with a wasteland.

You don't have to be some fruity Loth Green to think that farmers should pay the public to consume freshwater and dispose of drainwater. All you need is a basic grasp of what an externality is--Econ 1 stuff.

Call me a pollyanna, but in general I have a lot of faith in technical solutions. Is it really so hard/risky to get selenium out of the water at the drain? Bring on the engineered microbes.

9:56 PM  
Anonymous ed said...

I have a stupid question.

I suppose it would be way too expensive to build the equivalent of a wastewater treatment plant to adequately filter out the excess selenium and other trace minerals? Or distill the water and bury the trace minerals somewhere else? I had read something in the LA Times last week about this whole thing and they said they had some found some bacterial species that would consume selenium (I for me, frankenfood equivalent for you) that sounded relatively interesting. But like most early technology, sounds like it might cause some nasty unforeseen consequences.

A little disturbing that we might lose the San Joaquin farmlands in a generation. Serious socioeconomic consequences. Probably means that the Valley accelerates it suburbanization. The optimist side of me (that which reads Wired cover-to-cover when it arrives each month) thinks that the soil chemists will figure out some trick to desalinate the fields. The pessimist thinks, oh well, at least there will be some more dining options along the 5 when I'm stuck in traffic driving up to the Bay Area.

P.S. I like the periodic shift in thread. Sort of like the X-files when it was still good. The ongoing serial conspiracy plot (in this case, the powers that be separating Megan from the bearded grad student that she deserves) with the interspersed interesting free-standing episode (like this, or Los Osos).

10:04 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Yep, that's salt. You can get rid of salt in the soil from irrigation water by applying an annual reclamation flow of twice as much freshwater as you used for irrigation. Growers do that in the winter, so the water drains rather than evaporates, taking the salts with it. They do a lot of that in the Imperial Valley, 'cause their water is from the relatively salty Colorado River.

And Ed:
It is expensive, but the option they're looking at is treating the drainwater twice with some kind of osmotic system, then using bacteria to consume it. There are also some plants that will concentrate the selenium. Still, the selenium is conserved and it is a hazardous material in concentration. It has to go somewhere.

Not all of the acreage in the SJV is in danger of saltification, just the west side. Reclamation admits to wanting to retire 140,000 irrigated acres out of 3,000,000 in the Valley, and I'm guessing they would secretly like to retire a few times that. You would never notice a price increase in your cotton or tomatoes from that.

Glad you like the new theme, 'cause I got more.

Also Ed:
My friend Big Ed? What are you doing driving to the Bay Area when you should be coming to see? And why are you calling me Megan instead of Meg and not making fun of Ron Artest?

11:48 PM  
Anonymous Mr. Huston said...

Do many of the West Side growers have drain access to the San Joaquin River?

Another benefit of fallowing and/or providing a drain to these growers would be that less of their drainage (primarily sediment) would be dumped into the SJR which already has many problems and does flow into the Delta (the primary SoCal water provider).

9:06 AM  
Anonymous ryan said...

More irrigation stuff, especially the engineering-environmental-law-and-econ hybrid stuff, please! (Not that the rest of your blog isn't also brilliant, because it obviously is.)

11:15 AM  
Anonymous mitch said...

If you can rinse off the salt, then is it really inevitable that the farms will be "unfarmable in a generation or less"? Assuming they get their promised drain, then it sounds doable from what you've said.

Assuming they can remove the selenium, what makes Kesterson a short-term solution? Or if that's a bad assumption, what makes it bad?

It does sound like retiring the land (like you mentioned) is the easiest solution, though.

12:12 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Well, it triples the amount of water it takes to farm that land. Even when it is possible, it creates a very difficult task of cleaning out the selenium. Growing crops that aren't scarce is a bad way to use those resources. There is plenty of California farmland that doesn't have selenium-rich soils.

1:03 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

Saltification was/is a big-time problem in Australia, no? Saltation, on the other hand...

2:37 PM  
Blogger Sweet Coalminer said...

That is so Rachel Carson.

I am so relieved I no longer have any opinion whatsoever on that topic.

Alright, I do, and it is stop farming that land; it is not sustainable.

If you want to farm it, pay the price. The whole price/the real price. Not the subsidized price tag. We do not need cotton/alfalfa, etc. that badly.

11:18 PM  
Blogger Scott Calvert said...

Sadly my brain's too full to fully get up to speed on this issue at the moment, but I'm glad there are smart geeks out there who have time for the issue.

The whole issue about what we farm where always brings out my hopeful economic libertarian side. All the politics of the question make me long for a regulatory system that focuses on making farmers responsible for externalities and prevents outright abuse of the land, while letting the market drive the rest of the decisions.

Oh, btw, you get big points for geeking on real life infrastructure on road trips. I'm a bridge and dam geek and I spent much of summer vacations as a kid trying to deduce electrical theory from what I could see of powerlines and transformers.

3:32 PM  

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