Thursday, January 27, 2011

Where Westlands water flows, California’s agriculture follows

To many people -- particularly environmentalists and family-farm aficionados -- the Westlands Water District, on the dusty west side of California's San Joaquin Valley, conjures up an image of a sprawling empire of large-scale agribusiness. Roughly 600 farmers own land within the district, and grow a veritable cornucopia of tomatoes, almonds, pistachios, lettuce, cantaloupes, grapes, and other crops. Many farms here are huge, to be sure: One family farms at least 25,000 acres. But there are plenty of smaller farmers like 42-year-old Shawn Coburn, who grows 1,200 acres of mostly almonds. And to him, Westlands is an American Eden. "There's a long list of haters," says Coburn. But "we have the best dirt out there. It's the best ground in the world." There's only one problem. While the soil here may be good, there's not much water. At least not since 2007, when a federal judge drastically cut back farmers' water supplies to protect endangered fish in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river delta in the geographic heart of the state. A three-year drought began clobbering California that same year, making life even tougher for farmers like Coburn. In 2009, farmers in Westlands had their annual water supply rationed to just 10 percent of what they're entitled to under their contracts with the federal government. (More about that later.) Here and in neighboring irrigation districts, farmers were forced to idle, or "fallow," about a quarter-million acres of cropland because of drought and pumping restrictions, which cost them somewhere around $350 million in losses...more

1 comment:

Lloyd said...

While some Westlands soils are good quality, others are marginal, salty, or contain elevated levels of selenium, a trace element which is toxic in very low doses. Selenium in Westlands drainage is what destroyed the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in the mid 1980s, killing fish and thousands of birds. An estimated 300,000 acres of Westlands has high selenium levels. About 150,000 acres of Westlands were originally excluded from the federal irrigation project boundaries as too marginal for farming.
For a more thorough history of Westlands and its problems go to and click on the link to Lloyd's law review article in the upper right of the home page.