Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The "Congress Created Dust Bowl"

My job has me back in Southern California this week. On the drive down, between Sacramento and Bakersfield, I saw again an intermittent series of signs that I had noticed on previous trips, signs which read, “CONGRESS CREATED DUST BOWL.” In some places, these signs were located next to former orchards, now dead or dying.

The signs told me a story, as I drove southward in 105 degree heat, beneath the plumes of smoke from a couple of distant fires. First, they were evidence of the stress under which large industrial agribusinesses are now operating in this time of resource constraints and altered climate. According to a USDA report, California's snowpack contained nearly 30 percent less water than normal this last March.

California now has over 36 million people, a sizable fraction of whom are Southern Californians. Each of them seems to want enough water to wash his SUV, fill up his pool and water his lawn. Some of them work for realtors and developers who want to get rich from enticing yet more people to move here. All these residents must compete with each other and with farmers over a dwindling supply, as the Sacramento and Colorado rivers are under stress from excessive use. Many of the competing commercial interests who rule the California economy would each like to maximize their share of the available water, as their commercial success depends on it. Yet it is no longer possible.

My friends and coworkers here are telling me that Los Angeles County and Orange County have now imposed mandatory water use restrictions on residents. There's a news report from April of this year stating that San Diego County will start reducing water deliveries to its residents, starting in July. On all sides are signs that the residents of this state will be forced to start living quite differently, quite frugally, even to the extent of changing the way they grow their food. Big agribusiness will not survive unchanged.

Yet here were these yellow and black signs in the desert (that's right – it's a desert), a visual howl of existential angst and rage against reality printed in bold block letters. It seems that the man who put the signs up believes that if Congress or the State government simply relaxed environmental restrictions designed to protect some of the endangered Sacramento River fish, happy days would be here again, and the desert would burst into magical bloom. This man has friends among watchers of Fox News and its talking heads. They don't understand that the endangered status of the fish is one of the symptoms of larger limits that they will have to face whether they want to or not. Those limits are not the fault of Congress.


Anonymous said...

Wow - very well written. I couldn't agree more.

appletree said...

The central valley wasn’t always a desert. It used to be mostly wetlands that were drained years ago. What remains is some of the most fertile soil in the world. The important point here is that the farming has been done in an unsustainable way and that is what has produced, over decades, this "dust bowl". Had the soil been managed in a more sustainable way using cover crops and allowing a fallow period, etc then the soil wouldn't be so dusty.
More importantly, you are correct in that the seemingly insignificant fish that is not surviving in delta waters is indeed just a symptom of a much much larger problem. This is the point that is not grasped by so many people. The endangered species are just barometers of the health of the habitat in which they live. It's not about the fish at all. It’s about habitat. It just so happens in this case of this "congressional dust bowl", it has been confirmed in a court of law (NWF vw NMFS) that the pumping of water for central valley farmers is destroying the habitat needed for the survival of the entire California salmon fishing industry. Take a look at the chart of central valley water project pumping chart vs the central valley salmon population numbers over the last 8 years. George Bush made a promise to central valley farmers that they would have their cheap water, but guess what? The salmon industry collapsed as a result. Changes need to be made by central valley agribusinesses. Water and soil conserving technologies do exist and need to be implemented.
Thanks for writing about those ridiculous signs on the 5.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for clearing this up a bit. When I saw the signs I was wondering what was really going on behind these "congress caused dust bowls". Sometimes the government does things that don't really make sense, but I knew that they would not be screwing over a bunch of farmers unless the cost of denying farmers water was less than the cost of giving the farmers water. It's really hard to find unbiased aticles on this, so thanks for giving me a starting point in my research.

TH in SoC said...

A reader named S.B. sent in the following comment:

"Water was flooded into the San Joaquin Valley starting in 1933, by the United States Reclamation Service. By doing so, they provided a region in which farms could be started, and cities could thrive. Then, in light of new information, and gathering steam behind the Endangered Species Act of 1973, water began to flow with a little less bravado. Fast forward a few decades, and now the US Gov has decided to shut off water supplies to the area. In doing so, the cities, farms, and all their inhabitants and workers have been left to wither in the sun like the raisins once strewn across their fields. No, not a problem for congress I guess....They only created it.
Trust me, it's much easier to run from a tremendous problem, then to figure out how to digest it." - S.B. Los Angeles, CA

In response, I'd just like to mention first off that I'm surprised that this post is still generating discussion. Thanks very much, and thanks for your readership.

Let's unpack some of your statements. You said, "Water was flooded into the San Joaquin Valley starting in 1933, by the United States Reclamation Service. By doing so, they provided a region in which farms could be started, and cities could thrive." This water was delivered by irrigation which depended on fossil fuel energy. Further, there was a limit to the amount of water that could be sustainably used by residents and farmers functioning as part of modern American industrial society.

As the number of San Joaquin valley residents and farmers grew, as the total quantities of crops grew, and as the number of Californians in general grew, the amount of water use grew, eventually outstripping the amount of water that could sustainably be diverted to these new uses.

Both the Central Valley and much of California in general is now in a state of overshoot relative to available water supply. You are all experiencing a long and serious drought, a drought which is being amplified by climate change. You are facing impending shortages of fossil fuel energy (and the money which buys it) which is used to pump water hundreds of miles to Central Valley farms. You are depleting your groundwater quite a bit faster than it can be replenished by natural cycles. Even if you had access to all the water you want, your fields are salting up from years of irrigation, and are becoming infertile.

In short, the "growth-industry-capitalist" factory farming of the Central Valley and continued residential/commercial expansion and suburbanization of California are both short-term enterprises that could only be done for a short time before hard limits were reached. Those limits are here now. You could try to keep the game going a little longer, until your ecosystems, groundwater and rivers were wrecked - or you could stop now and try to switch to more sustainable arrangements, while you still have something left worth saving.

So, in response to your statement, "Trust me, it's much easier to run from a tremendous problem, then to figure out how to digest it," I'd like to ask what you think we should do.

By the way, feel free to check out these links: "Sustainability of Irrigated Agriculture In The San Joaquin Valley, California (http://www.pnas.org/content/102/43/15352.full)"; "Case History" San Joaquin Valley (ucce.ucdavis.edu/files/repositoryfiles/ca3810p16-72363.pdf)"; "Satellites detect dramatic Valley water loss (http://www.fresnobee.com/1072/story/1748159.html)"; and "Central Valley Project (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Central_Valley_Project, which describes the environmental damage caused by irrigation projects in the Valley)."

TH in SoC said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I just returned from SoCal via I-5. Every time I saw one of those "Congress Created Dust Bowl" signs, I wanted to stop and add another saying "Mother Nature Created Desert". And then the really big sign at Harris Ranch complaining that the Sacto area is sending treated sewer water down south. They should be glad we send them anything. If humans would work with the natural conditions in the geographic area they inhabit, and not depend on artificial conditions, we would all be better off. Ever get the idea that the living entity Earth is trying to rid itself of the deadly parasite human?

Pangolin said...

As of January 2011 those signs are still up. This blog actually was the most accurate resource I've come across yet.

There are still numerous orchards growing right next to signs claiming "Congress Created Dust Bowl." Also it's clear that the farmers are disking land next to the highway for no other reason than to blow dust on drivers.

One small correction. Most of the power for the pumps comes from the dams in Northern California.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, your just another ignorant LA liberal. (Even if your aren't self-proclaimed). The Central Valley produces 8% of the Nations ag on 1% of the total ag land in the country. Reservoirs made it possible to farm and feed you, yes feed you. Also read a book, the southern region is semi-arid, the northern receives more rain. When the state regulates your water use, and doesnt let you WATER YOUR CROPS its called, its a top down regulation. THUS CONGRESS CREATED. The fish; google it, its not indigenous or the the size of your palm. Ill let you know, I grew up there, and away at school in the bay area. Driving home, I take the back roads, the SJ river almost overflowed, the Mendota Slough same. Yet we cant use 100% of our needed water, not 100% of the water, but 100% to insure we can harvest. Next time you eat at IN N' OUT your meat came from Harris Ranch on the West Side of our valley, like it? Do you eat grapes or raisins? We produce more than anywhere, literally. Like peaches(or any stone fruit), pistachios, corn, beef, dairy, wheat, almonds, oranges, or kiwi? Hmm we grew them. Do where cotton? We grew that too. So our desert seems pretty fertile to me. Stay out, shut up, and keep driving. You keep eating our crops, SO RESEARCH THE STATISTICS our ALPHA is 1%, beta 1.3, compared to the rest of the nation. One more time, IF THE STATE REGULATES YOUR WATER AND DOESNT LET YOU USE TO THE POINT THAT YOUR CROPS DIE AND YOU CANT FEED YOUR FAMILY! ITS CONGRESS CREATED!!! If your so un-supportive of our needs, DONT EAT OUR HARD WORK!! KEEP DRIVING LA Liberal!!!

Anonymous said...

BTW i checked your links, there liberal sources. Your the definition of an ignorant liberal, who only allows correlated comments of your personal opinion on your blog. You would be hard put if we feed your belly and send you water, so why dont you keep your mouth shut. Tell you what, for the summer, dont eat any corn, melons, grapes, In N Out, or wear cotton, k? By the way its April 2011, and the whole its been two years yada yada... uh yea! We have enough water and cant use because of a four inch fish and sending water to you! This is our heritage, our livlihood. Just like plastic surgery and films are yours. Are you even from Califnornia, I mean born here? If so whose side are you on? If your so liberal dont you support local farms? If it isnt from us, its shipped from afar. Your a living contridiction. Unless you personally have two acres to sustain yourself, in the fetile concrete block called southern california.

TH in SoC said...

Mr. Anonymous (20 April 2011):
Read my recent post titled, "The Death of the Central Valley." Hopefully that will clear up your misconceptions.

Valhalla Six said...


Also, why grow cotton? It requires SO much water to maintain. It is much better suited to be grown in the southeastern part of the United States.

"Any ecological unit has limited or definite carrying capacity." Vogl.

"Principle of stress, overuse, and system backlash." Vogl.

There is nothing wrong with the agriculture community. We are incredibly dependent on its products. However, if we want to avoid things such as dust bowls and total ecological collapse, it might be wise to find more effective ways to reach a sustainable amount of growth. That ecosystem will never die. It will just change in one way or another to kick you out. It will leave you and everyone who depends on your product, SOL. Teamwork is not just a function between man, but between man and his environment.