Alternative to the tunnels

Water watchdogs call for retiring toxic farmland, eliminating the associated water rights

Driven through the San Joaquin Valley lately? If so, you’ve seen a portion of the hundreds of thousands of acres of orchards planted in this arid part of the Golden State. Pistachios and almonds are two of the crops greedy corporate farmers have put in, despite both being water-intensive and the fact that this region doesn’t have the water to sustain them. Or at least not local water. They can thank the North State and the Sacramento River for keeping the trees alive.

Currently, during this fourth year of drought, in a time when farmers in that part of the state should be fallowing their fields, these wealthy ag interests are continuing to irrigate their thirsty trees. If they don’t, the orchards will die. Never mind the fact that they shouldn’t have gone in the ground in the first place. Never mind that the land is toxic and poses risks to the environment and public health. Never mind that the land has literally sunk from the overpumping of groundwater.

Subsidence impacts not only the environment; it’s also destructive to infrastructure, such as pipelines, sewer systems, canals and bridges. Yet, the ag corporations won’t have to pay to repair any of it. Nope, the taxpayers will pick up the tab.

Sound ridiculous? It is. But the delta water keeps flowing.

Meanwhile, as Gov. Jerry Brown continues to push his plan for a new water conveyance system—the massive twin tunnels project—a new report by an independent economic analysis firm suggests a cheaper and more eco-friendly alternative to that $60 billion option to divert Sacramento River water, and heavy-hitting delta advocates and water watchdog groups, including Chico’s own AquAlliance, are on board with it.

According to a study by EcoNorthwest, the state could save 455,000 acre-feet of water—about three-quarters of the amount of water Los Angeles uses in a year—by paying between $580 million and $1 billion to retire 300,000 acres of selenium-tainted land, while simultaneously eliminating the water rights associated with it.

The plan isn’t a cure-all for California’s dwindling water supplies, but it’s a step in the right direction. Permanently fallowing lands unsuitable for farming is a no-brainer, and if the governor considers the best interests of the state as a whole, both fiscally and environmentally, it’s something he should get behind. Californians should do the same.