Modesto – August 18, 2015

I drove a loop in the Modesto area today to get sense of the San Joaquin (“SJ”) Valley, the southern half of the great California Central Valley.

The SJ Valley stretches for 200+ miles, from the California Delta (east of San Francisco) south to the Tehachapi Mountains near Bakersfield.  Typically it’s about 50 miles wide. The Valley is divided into the northern San Joaquin Basin which drains via the SJ River to the Delta, and southern Tulare Lake Basin where several streams discharge to a dead-end lake.

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  (Image source)

The Valley of course puts up some impressive agricultural productivity statistics.  Though intellectually I knew better, my subconscious associated the Valley and Modesto in particular with grape and wine production, I suppose from the Carlo Rossi wine commercials I saw as a kid.  The reality is milk and almonds make up half of the Valley’s agricultural economy, followed by 5-10% each of cattle, chickens, sweet potato, and hay. Wine grapes are only a couple percent.

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Dr. Josué Medellín-Azuara.

Dr. Josué Medellín-Azuara of University of California – Davis is wonderfully articulate in a soft-spoken way and knowledgeable beyond compare in matters of water, agriculture, and economics.  I spoke with him yesterday about the Valley, its economy and myriad of water challenges.  Josué elaborated that the Valley is experiencing a rocketing increase in perennial, high water demand crops.  Mostly almonds, but also pistachios, walnuts, and some exotic fruits.  Unlike annual crops where a lack of water causes one year of crop failure, these perennials take years to establish.  Thus one year of water deprivation results in years of failed investment and production.  He further explained that producers often think they have contracts or rights for water, but this is often a right or contract for “virtual water,” not necessarily “real water.” The way this seems to work is if water is available in a given year, the contract or right makes it yours. But if water supplies are limited because other user’s rights pre-empt yours or because water is needed to keep fish on life support – now there’s a problem.  Josué is advising producers to avoid growing only perennial crops. Instead, manage risk by keeping a portfolio of perennial and annual crops and sacrifice the annual crops in times of water scarcity.

I need to find out more about this “virtual water” business.

The Modesto surroundings present a pretty tough and monotonous landscape by Wisconsin standards.  Flat enough to make Plainfield seem hilly.  Dry, hot, and rarely something natural or wild.  Mostly what impresses is the sea of almonds, almonds, almonds.  A dairy farm here, some field corn there, an alfalfa field in a third place, but not much.

Josué says there is presently no end in sight to global almond demand.

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Big almonds, little almonds…
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…and holes being dug for more almonds.

I drove up and along the San Joaquin River, which had some flow and some trees lining its banks. We passed the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge, one of the small and rare remnants of a natural landscape.

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The San Joaquin River near Modesto.

During pre-settlement times, the SJ River itself emerged from Sierra Nevada as a mountain stream, and at the Valley bottom headed northward to be joined by other mountain streams. Similar streams fed Tulare Lake to the south.  Streamflows were reliable, even though the Valley is a dry place, because of a steady water supply provided by melting mountain snow.  Rivers and their riparian wetlands supported an abundance of fish and aquatic life, including salmon runs, waterfowl, and water-loving mammals. Valley uplands were dominated by grasslands that supported creatures as large as elk. The Valley was developed for irrigated agriculture during an era where diverting water for private gain was the prevailing ethic and little concern was demonstrated for salmon, wetlands, waterfowl, and wildlife, nor people downstream who might be making livings on these things.  This is not to denigrate the efforts and ambitions of those who worked to cultivate the land and build exquisite irrigation water conveyance systems.   I suspect that many were worried about their immediate economic and perhaps real survival that there was not thought given to what the landscape was becoming, or what long-term consequences might accrue.

Today, virtually all of the Valley’s grasslands have been converted to agriculture and 90-95% of wetlands have disappeared along with elk and much of the fish and waterfowl.  Irrigation diversions have dried some 60 miles of SJ River. Tulare Lake, once 2-3 times the size of Lake Winnebago and the largest freshwater lake in the west, has been dried.  Salmon are barely hanging on.

When a severely stressed system gets piled onto by a new stress, bad things tend to happen in spades.  So in this fourth year of California drought when surface water sources are diminished, new and deeper irrigation wells are being installed, largely to pump more groundwater to all those sensitive almond groves.  Groundwater levels in some places have dropped a hundred feet lower than any time in the recorded past, according to the USGS.  Worse yet is that pumping is causing the land to sink, up to a couple of inches a month according to a NASA report.  This piles onto sinking that occurred in previous decades.  Damages have occurred to highways, irrigation ditches, and bridges, and the aquifer’s ability to hold water has been permanently reduced.

With the benefit of hindsight, one wonders if those who developed the San Joaquin Valley might have considered developing only 60 or 80 percent of the grasslands and wetlands to agriculture, saving something for wildlife, and perhaps leaving some water in the stream for salmon runs.  Maybe as well budgeting a water reserve for hard times.

A counter-argument to leaving some reserve for dry years and nature might be an ethic for producing maximum economy for the people who live here.  But for all the consumption of the public’s water and revenue that gets generated, this economy is failing many of San Joaquin Valley residents.  Merced County in the heart of the Valley has a quarter of its population below poverty level and a third without a high school diploma.  The Fresno, Modesto, Bakersfield-Delano areas are among the top five US regions with the highest poverty rates.  Crime statistics are correspondingly high.

More thought, it seems, is needed as to how to make these public trust waters for all citizens; the two-footed, four-footed, feathered, and finned.

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