Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Salt of the Earth

The San Joaquin Valley is the California poster child for desertification through salinization of its soils from using water from the Federal Central Valley Project. This water contains 2 million tons of salt, applied through out each successive irrigation season.

The oceans are the planetary depository for salt. The continents have been contributing salt to the oceans since rain began to fall from the atmosphere. Humans add their piece to the salt flow with their activities, greatly accelerating the salt flow from certain watersheds.

Industrial agriculture adds enormous salt loads to the receiving waters upstream of the ocean and re-distributes salt downstream through irrigation projects, mainly financed by the federal government.

Twenty five years ago, the State was prepared to build a canal around the eastern edge of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and thereby reduce this salt load by half and further restrict pumping if salt levels were too high to deliver water during droughts. That essential piece of plumbing was then called the Peripheral Canal and these have become the most dreaded two words in Sacramento.

In response to the State, certain large agricultural interests financed a campaign to stop the Peripheral Canal with a referendum to reverse the state legislative actions which authorized the Department of Water Resources to build the final link in this massive water system. Most support to kill the canal came from the Delta farmers and cotton empires of the Salyer and JG Boswell, built mostly in Tulare Lake and surrounding wetlands. Read excerpts from The King of California here.

With the success of this one ballot measure, San Joaquin Valley farmers fired the poison dart that would steal this 100 year effort by the US Bureau of Reclamation to reclaim these arid lands for production of food and fiber to supply our nation and much of the world. Over the past twenty-five years, the farm lands have been laced with 50 million tons of salt delivered with the irrigation water, twice as salty as it would have been if the Peripheral Can had been built.

It is while these lands are still a viable agricultural resource that we need to act.

I'd like to see California push toward more sustainable agriculture by lowering the salt content of the irrigation water in the San Joaquin Valley rather than watch the land owners salt it in and then develop the salt flats with urbanscape. This means we build the peripheral canal and design it for considerable sea level rise.

Congress should act soon to simply halt all water rights if land use conversion removes it from its agricultural purposes, even if it is due to loss of productivity due to soil pollution. This will create a major shift in protecting our national agricultural resources by making all farmers perpetual stewards of the land, in exchange for a government-developed supply of water.

This proposal would bring the ag lobby to arms like you've never seen it, but it will be good to force them to show their hand (and strong arm behind it!)

George Miller is one of the few members of Congress who could kick off something like this. Congressman Henry Waxman in Southern California could be his strong ally. Senate allies will probably have to come from outside California, as our incumbent Senators Feinstein and Boxer are already owned by the ag lobby.

When the Peripheral Canal was stopped 25 years ago, I started calling the San Joaquin Valley the new Metropolis of SacroBake, home to 30 million future California residents, unable to grow even a backyard garden in this newly created desert, wondering where their next water will come from: the sky or the good graces of the water managers who control any water coming from the ground or aqueducts and still able to pass the health standards set for salinity? Listen to NPR audio track on California Delta Faces Salty Future.

The world may yet mark us down as one more society that crumbled because of mismanaged irrigated agriculture and a self-imposed victim of too much Salt of The Earth.