Report suggests immediate way to ease the drought

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From the Central Valley Business Times.

By stopping irrigation of all of the salt-polluted land that’s in the “San Luis Unit” – a large portion of the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, California residents could benefit from significantly reduced toxic runoff into the Delta, and increased supplies of precious and scarce water that can be put to better uses, according to a report from the environmental research firm EcoNorthwest of Seattle, Wash. Farmers have already removed from irrigation 25 percent of the affected land.

The research was paid for by Food and Water Watch, California Water Impact Network, and Citizens Against Taxpayer Funding of the BDCP.

Drainage problems impair roughly half of all lands within the San Luis Unit, the study says. The “San Luis Unit” is a major reason for the federal Central Valley Project, one of the nation’s largest irrigation systems. “The principal purpose of the San Luis Unit is irrigation water supply for almost 1 million acres of prime farmland in central California,” the Bureau of Reclamation says.

Taking that land out of production could cost “between $740 million and $793 million, on average,” the report says.

“Forty percent of California’s total annual supply of surface water is devoted to agricultural production, which in turn accounts for roughly 80 percent of the water used by humans in the state,” the report notes.

“California needs to balance water demands with the realities of its supply, which means retiring inappropriate farmland,” says Adam Scow, California director at Food & Water Watch. “Retiring toxic farmland in Westlands is a commonsense step toward protecting our overstretched and dwindling water supply.”

The report observes that farmers are caught in a vice by the ongoing drought. “With the declining availability of surface water, agricultural producers rely more heavily on groundwater supplies, use available water more efficiently, scale back their operations, or fallow their lands entirely. Farmers have pursued all of these options during the current drought,” it says.

Fallowing land because of draining issues is not new. There have been numerous efforts over the years and while some land has been “retired,” most of the impacted area is still irrigated.

The new report adds its voice to calls to stop putting good water onto bad soils.

“Many thousands of acres of impaired lands remain. By taking these remaining lands out of irrigated production, California benefits in two ways. First, taking these lands out of irrigated production would significantly reduce toxic runoff into the San Joaquin River and the Delta. This would help reduce pollution in the Delta and improve the quality of water flowing out of the Delta to other beneficial uses. Second, retiring these lands could potentially increase supplies of precious and scarce water that can be put to better uses,” the report says.

Along with retiring the land, the groups are calling on Gov. Edmund Brown Jr. and his State Water Board to stop the “paper water” claims that run with the land – the disparity that exists between water rights claims and water that actually exists. Currently, the State Water Resources Control Board has allocated water rights claims that exceed available water from the Delta watershed by a factor of five, they estimate.

“The retirement must be accompanied by a proportional reduction in water contract amounts,” says Tom Stokely of California Water Impact Network. “UC Davis has demonstrated that California water demands are vastly out of balance with the realities of our supply: it’s no more than ‘paper water.’ To guarantee Westlands a 50-year water supply, as the current settlement does, would be an unfair and irresponsible giveaway to heavily-subsidized, corporate farms in Westlands.”

In a previous land retirement deal, Westlands’ water supply allocation was not reduced. A concern shared by the three groups is that under the deal, corporate farms might sell their taxpayer-subsidized water for private profit at the expense of the environment.

“We cannot permit Westlands to transform itself from heavily subsidized corporate farms into a water broker at the expense of taxpayers and the San Francisco Bay/Delta Estuary,” says Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta.

In addition, given the likelihood that land retirement would eliminate farm jobs tied to that land, the three groups recommend that those farmworkers be compensated fairly for their losses and that public funds be made available for that purpose.