September 19, 2011
The Central Valley of California is a fertile bed of over 350 diverse species of agricultural crops, some of the major cash crops being rice, grapes, cotton, and almonds. California’s agricultural industry makes up 15% of the entire nation’s crops and made a profit of $37 billion in the year 2009.
Despite these numbers, desertification is an increasingly major problem.
Between 1998 and 2000, 10,000 acres of farmland were lost every year in Central Valley from urbanization alone—this doesn’t account for the acres of fertile farmland lost due to overgrazing, climate change, or poor farming practices. Currently, California is losing 178 km2 of arable, fertile land each year. Southern California especially, being a very arid and drought-inclined region to begin with, has a problem with increasing salinity and compound minerals in the soil, caused by overdrawing ground water (United States Geological Survey).
Desertification is not only the result of human activity. The UN Convention to Combat Desertification identifies the other major cause of desertification to be climatic variations—for example, erosion, drought and irregular rainfall, and violent winds. Essentially it renders the soil infertile, not only for planting and agriculture but for any organic life. Desertification occurs on a global scale, particularly through deforestation and drought. Areas around the Amazons, for example, have undergone desertification because the trees are being harvested for wood and cleared for farmland, and much of the space lies fallow. Similarly, in California, trees are cleared using the “slash and burn” method to open fields for cheap soybean and livestock cultivation.
Desertification is a challenge for California because it is a desert environment supporting an increasingly large population on limited water imports. The situation becomes more dire when the effects of global warming are considered, which dramatically expedite desertification. Owens Valley, California, for example, became a desert when all of the natural water resources were diverted to Southern California for drinking water and crop irrigation. The San Joaquin Valley is a region that has undergone natural desertification due to climate change, a result of surface crusting, salinization and waterlogging problems.
Most popularly considered solutions to desertification involve addressing problems of drought. Every 5 years in California a new Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) is released. In 2008, the last DCP, tactics included aggressive conservation, new groundwater and surface water storage facilities, and environmental restoration. GMOs also offer the possibility of growing crops that are resistant to drought, thus using less of the precious water resources to yield the same or greater amount of agriculture.
Similarly, Air-to-Water harvesters are a new technology that essentially takes the humidity in the air and convert it to usable water. This can slow desertification significantly.
From a more bottom-up perspective, education and conservation initiatives will also drastically reduce the human contribution to desertification. Programs teaching grey-water usage, water conservation, and the transformation of lawns into food forests can save a lot of water if it is implemented locally and broadly. Natural forests and wetlands need to be protected rather than cleared, farmed, and abandoned.
While desertification is in and of itself a natural process, the human factors can and must be reduced, especially in California, if we are to live harmoniously with the land and reap the benefits of its yield.
About the authors: Xueyou Wang and Kayla Duarte are undergraduate students in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.