Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Death Of The Central Valley

I will begin this post by amending my policy for comments on this blog. In the sidebar on the right, I originally wrote, “A Word On Comments: Comments are always welcome. I am flattered by those who read, and gratified by those who comment (even though we may disagree). I only ask that comments be 'family-friendly' – clean language, if you get my drift.”

That part of my comment policy still stands. However, I am now adding a new condition, namely, that anyone who wants to post a comment on this blog must do so via a valid OpenID. I will no longer be accepting anonymous comments. Why the change? Because of anonymous comments supportive of certain economic interests which were submitted for my posts, “The Chicken That Laid Leaden Eggs, And Other Horror Stories,” and “The 'Congress Created Dust Bowl'.”

But here's a paradox: today I am violating my own comment policy – just a little bit, and only this once. This past April, an anonymous commenter submitted two very hostile comments on the “Congress Created Dust Bowl” post. (I am just now getting around to addressing this person's comments. In April I was up to my neck in teaching and my office job.) Despite the hostility, I found the comments highly entertaining. (In another setting, they would have been downright funny, although the commenter was not trying to be humorous.) In many ways these comments are typical of the mindset of the “conservative,” jingoistic, materialist, supremacist, anti-intellectual element in modern-day America, even to the emotive name-calling, bad grammar and misspelling of simple words. The commenter also accuses me of allowing only comments with which I agree. Today, I have proven him wrong. If you want to read what he wrote, check out “The 'Congress Created Dust Bowl'” post. (And yes, Mr. Anonymous, whoever you are, I no longer live in California.)

Now I'd like to give a response to this person's comments, a response which will shed a rather different light on the challenges facing Central Valley agriculture. Hopefully this response will also shed further light on the fallacy of promoting unrestrained resource use of any kind in pursuit of economic growth. The truth is that in so many ways, our society has hit the wall.

My anonymous reader starts by saying, “The Central Valley produces 8% of the Nations (sic) ag on 1% of the total ag land in the country. Reservoirs made it possible to farm and feed you, yes feed you...When the state regulates your water use, and doesnt (sic) let you WATER YOUR CROPS its called, its a top down regulation. THUS CONGRESS CREATED...” He drives home his point by concluding, “IF THE STATE REGULATES YOUR WATER AND DOESNT (sic) LET YOU USE (sic) TO THE POINT THAT YOUR CROPS DIE AND YOU CANT (sic) FEED YOUR FAMILY! ITS CONGRESS CREATED!!!” (Emphasis in original.)

To provide some background to this man's rant, over the last few years the United States Federal government and certain California state agencies have imposed water use restrictions on Central Valley farmers in order to protect Central Valley groundwater supplies and to prevent ecological damage resulting from the over-exploitation of the Sacramento River. In response to these restrictions, a number of wealthy agribusinesses mounted a protest campaign whose most visible manifestation was the installation along Interstate 5 of hundreds of yellow signs with red letters reading “Congress Created Dust Bowl,” “Stop the Congress Created Dust Bowl,” and the names, Boxer, Costa and Pelosi (politicians who were being targeted by farmers for removal from office for helping to “create” the supposed “dust bowl”).

Here we have a very typical fight between a group of people who want to pursue economic growth at all costs, regardless of the collateral damage, and a group of people who acknowledge the very real limits to economic growth caused by limits on resources and the magnitude of the damage resulting from over-exploitation of those resources. Those who worship growth above all else demonize those who acknowledge limits and warn against trying to breach those limits. Those who see limits to growth in the Central Valley are branded as “Socialists!!!” and “LA liberals!!!” as my anonymous commenter called me.

But what if the pro-growth agribusinessmen got their way? I'd like to suggest that they would soon hit the wall anyway. In the Central Valley, that would mean the demise of large-scale agriculture, sooner rather than later – even if farmers were allowed to take as much water as they possibly could from available supplies. For intensive irrigated agriculture on a large scale carries the seeds of its own destruction.

The problem is the salting up of irrigated soils. This is a contributing factor to desertification – the result of farming too intensively, extracting resources too rapidly from the soils in a region, especially an arid or semiarid region, so that the land is not allowed time for natural processes to recharge and replenish it. (Desertification resulting from improper agriculture has caused a few ancient civilizations to fail, by the way.)

I will try to summarize the process by which soils become salted. Salts of various kinds are present in all soils, as well as in most naturally occurring bodies of water. However, salt accumulation in soils is usually the result of human activity. When water from lakes or rivers is used to irrigate lands used for agriculture, the salt in the irrigation water mingles with the salt in the naturally occurring groundwater. This is not a problem if the land has good drainage and if the amount of irrigation is relatively small. However, if the amount of irrigation is large or the land has poor drainage, there are a number of negative effects:

  • Plants used as crops take up the irrigation water through transpiration, leaving dissolved salts behind in the soil.

  • As large volumes of crops are grown in the same plot of irrigated land, the concentration of salt remaining in the soil increases.

  • As land with poor drainage is intensively irrigated, a second mechanism increases the concentration of salts in the soil, namely, evaporation of water from flooded ground, leaving dissolved salts behind. This causes the naturally occurring groundwater to become increasingly saline as well.

The result of these effects is the buildup of soil salt concentrations to a level that prevents plants from growing. Then the field becomes unusable for agriculture. In extreme cases, the field can become barren.

This process is happening to the California Central Valley. It is happening because of the expansion of intensive irrigated agriculture. Many recent studies have been published which document this process. A study published by the University of California, Davis, in 2009 predicts that “...if salinity increases at the current rate until 2030, the direct annual costs will range from $1 billion to $1.5 billion...The production of goods and services in California could be reduced from $5 billion to $8.7 billion a year...the increase in salinity by 2030 could cost the Central Valley economy 27,000 to 53,000 jobs...” In short, Central Valley intensive irrigated agriculture, done intensively in order to maximize profit growth, is on the verge of serious trouble – even if Central Valley farmers get all the water they can get their hands on. The more water they get, the sooner they will all be in intractable trouble.

The problem of soil salinization and desertification is by no means limited to the California Central Valley. It is a worldwide symptom of modern industrial agriculture. In many places, man-made climate change will only make the problem worse. Smart people should begin thinking of alternative ways of getting their food.


  1. Excessive Irrigation Promotes Desertification,” Willem Van Cotthem, 23 June 2008.

  2. The Economic Impacts of Central Valley Salinity,” University of California Davis, 16 March 2009.

  3. More With Less: Agricultural Conservation and Efficiency in California,” Pacific Institute, 2008.

  4. Dryland Agriculture, Irrigation, And Salinity,” University of Florida.

  5. Sustainability of Irrigated Agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley, California,” University of California, Davis; Los Alamos National Laboratory; Hydrogeologic, Inc, 25 October 2005.

  6. Irrigation Salinity – Causes and Impacts,” Cynthia Podmore, Advisory Officer, Natural Resource Advisory Services, Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia, 2009.

  7. Salinity In The Landscape,” Geotimes, Pichu Rengasamy, March 2008.

1 comment:

Valhalla Six said...

I just got back from a trip to Carrizo Plain National Monument. On the way up, I had learned that in the beginning of the 20th century, there was enough wetlands in the San Joaquin Valley to be able to canoe from Bakersfield to Sacramento without ever having to get out. 'What happened?' was all that I could ask myself.

Bravo to your response. I've never understood the tie between socialism and conservationism.