February 22, 2012
Much of our American history is linked to the way in which our government has chosen, and the people have voted, to control our freshwater resources. Whether it has been through the damming of rivers, the diversion of streams, or the pumping of ground water, countless water control projects have been executed, and as a result the landscape of this nation has undeniably been transformed. These water control methods, generous government subsidies, and the inefficient and indulgent irrigation and water usage practices have contributed to many social, economic and environmental disasters that exist in the California Central Valley today.
The original intent of federal water projects, set out in the Reclamation Act of 1902, was to encourage Western settlement by small family farms. However, over the course of many years this initial motive was lost. The Central Valley Project (CVP) is the largest federal reclamation project in the United States. According to a report by the Environmental Working Group (EWP), as of 2004 the estimated yearly subsidy to farmers receiving CVP water was roughly $60 million. Water subsidies in the Central Valley Project are mainly granted to very large agribusiness operations. The operations are usually under the control of corporations and run by hired farmers instead the small farms for which the project was intended. In this report EWP stated that, “In 2002, the average price for irrigation water from the CVP was less than two percent what Los Angeles residents pay for drinking water and about one-tenth the estimated cost of replacement water supplies.” So not only have the farmers of the Central Valley been getting their water virtually free, they have not even been paying what it costs to deliver and replace the water they have received.
This is a graph showing the price farmers of the Central Valley Project pay for water, in comparison to the costs of water supply replacement and what Los Angeles Residents pay for water. This heavily subsidized water turned out to be an influential factor in many of the water issues California would come to face after the projects implementation. Because receivers of CVP water do not pay for the true cost and value of water, this precious resource has been overused and as a result has led to a host of problems including the inefficient use of water, the devastation of fish and wildlife habitat, severe toxic pollution, and the salinization of our soils. This salinization is a major issue that isn’t always front page news, but is a startling crisis.
Today the most under-recognized water quality problem in California is salinity, the concentration of dissolved solids in water. One of the primary ways salts are added to soil and water supplies is through irrigated agriculture. In the western United States, many soils are classified as saline or alkaline, a direct result of intense agricultural irrigation made possible by cheap water. When water is extracted from the soil, either by plants, evaporation, or irrigation, salts are left behind. Every time a farmer irrigates a field, every time you or I take a shower, every time water is used we contribute to the salinity problem. This is because the water we use has a higher salinity concentration than what it started with. In the case of soil salinization, water-soluble salts build up in the root zones of plants, blocking the absorption of water and nutrients into the plants roots. This problem particularly applies to arid regions, like the western United States, because increased evaporation results in a higher concentration of salt. As the irrigation water evaporates, absorbed by plants, or trapped in overwatered and poorly drained (waterlogged) soils, it increases the dissolved solid content of the soil and water. Eventually this increase in soil salt will inhibit or stop plant growth. Once this happens it is necessary to apply much more water to the field than required for plant growth to flush away salt from the plant root zone. Without proper drainage systems, the soils become waterlogged and the ground water becomes enriched in dissolved salts. Since water is so cheap in the Central Valley there is little to no incentive for farmers to switch to more efficient irrigation and drainage methods, thus the problem of soil salinization is exacerbated. According to the California Water Impact Network irrigation of this land with water exported from the Sacramento Delta and received through the CVP adds an enormous amount of salt to the already-saline soils of the western Valley. As much as 4,000 tons of salt are deposited daily (the equivalent of 40 railroad cars), while only 1,700 tons of salts leave the basin daily in runoff and drainage to the San Joaquin River. Salinization of this magnitude has resulted in the approximately 400,000 acres of saline soils that currently exist in this area. This acreage constitutes approximately 48 percent of the irrigated land within the boundaries of the survey area, up from approximately 33 percent of the irrigated saline land identified in 1985, an increase of approximately 120,000 acres in 18 years. While approximately 113,000 acres on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley have been retired (permanently removed from irrigation) due to regional drainage problems and high salinity content. Salts have toxically poisoned these soils to the point that they are no longer arable. Not only are occurrences such as these detrimental to the environment but they threaten our food security by limiting our ability to produce sustenance, destroy our land resources, and carry negative social and economic implications.
Of course, it would be foolish not to recognize the contributions irrigation has provided for California and many parts of the world. Most of our lives at USC currently depend on the unnatural irrigation of water throughout California. However, the facts do not change, and if we intend to continue living in this desert, we have to be willing to change our practices. It is easy to say that water subsidies should be eliminated, but we have to be willing to accept the consequences of that action. Not only would small farmers probably have to find new work, but also many other people would be displaced vocationally. The cost of any business that uses water or some resource from the corporations that use water would go up dramatically. Our lives would be heavily impacted as well. We’d face much higher prices for water and most goods, many would have to move to locations were the cost and value of water is not as high. The change would be dramatic. But even if it seems unfair or too hard, it is ultimately the only practical way to solve these issues. We’ve seen that technology can’t keep up with these problems, and even if it does it requires a vast amount of energy and resources. As Environmental Studies majors, we have to decide if we would be willing to accept these new living conditions before we expect others to.
Christina Robles ‘12, who is pursing a BS in Environmental Studies and Corey Bustamante ‘13, who is pursing a double major in Environmental Studies and Economics, wrote this blog.
UC Davis, Center for Watershed Science- http://watershed.ucdavis.edu/myths/index.html
Environmental Working Group- http://farm.ewg.org/
Natural Resources Conservation Service- http://soils.usda.gov/survey/online_surveys/california/
California Water Impact Network- http://www.c-win.org/