December 26, 2009

Water wars on "60 Minutes"

Above, a Central Valley vineyard from Aquafornia on Flickr. In the background, pumps at Chrisman Wind Gap send 2.1 million gallons a minute of NoCal water to pumping plants in the Tehachapi range. On the other side of the Tehachapis the water flows to Los Angeles, Antelope Valley and Lake Perris. [Some SoCal regions use local water, and famously well-managed water at that. Ha ha! She said "well"!] Check out Aquafornia's slide show — following the water from the Delta to locations in SoCalhere.

As if Sean "plump as a manatee" Hannity [don't miss Jon Stewart's slapdown] weren't tribulation enough for California's Central Valley, along comes 60 Minutes with “Running Dry.” 130,000 dead almond trees, OMG! How much more can the Central Valley take? Let's ask someone who actually, you know, does research:
[T]he Californian almond harvest this year was 1.6 billion pounds shelled (up from 1.3 billion pounds shelled last year) accounting for 85% of the world’s almond production. C’mon, Sixty Minutes. I know tractors ripping out trees look awesome, but so does the annual Almond Almanac. A few seconds of searching would have given you some perspective on this. It would have told you how big the imminent impact is going to be. And that even with the drought, there were more almonds harvested this year than ever before.

[Here's the source of that quote. Excellent reading, rated R for language.]

Watch 60 Minutes if you must. As for me, I'll stick to my water blogs. For the straight dope on water out west, go here:

On the public record

And check out all these as well, from Emily Green's most excellent Chance of Rain.


Bill Fosher said...

I have this idea about the central valley. Maybe they should grow crops that don't require the importation of billions of acre-feet of water. Or, if they want to do that, perhaps the water shouldn't be subsidized by taxpayers across the country. And maybe LA shouldn't have green lawns. And while we're at it, maybe Las Vegas (the meadows, if I remember my Spanish correctly) shouldn't have huge fountains spewing water hundreds of feet in the desert air, where a measurable fraction of it evaporates with every blast.

But to go back to the Central Valley, I think it's a classic example of the sort of nonsense that comes when you play the federal Cheap and Abundant Food policy out to its logical conclusions. You end up with an infrastructure that has been tremendously productive for long enough that huge public and private investments have been made in fundamentally unsustainable systems, and now we are constantly being asked to prop up the leaning shed with more federal dollars.

While the water may be the most visible battle, because it pits suburban lawns and golf courses against farmers and provides graphic images like those of almond trees being ripped out of the ground, it is only a symptom of the fact that we are making food in places and using methods that are out of harmony with nature and mother nature will eventually return the Central Valley to the arid plain that it was, and that She intends it to be. Puny humans be damned.

The only question is what price She will make us pay for our transgressions.

Luisa said...

Bill wrote, "Mother nature will eventually return the Central Valley to the arid plain that it was..."

The east side of the Central Valley was oak woodland that flooded every spring/summer: woodland and riparian habitat. Some of it is still there.

The arid plain is on the west side of the Great Central Valley [where modern-day farmers are clamoring for water], and even the west side wasn't nearly as arid, or as plain-y for that matter, back when the valley was filled with oaks. American visitors and mountain men compared the Central Valley to a great park. But in 1849 the world rushed in; the oaks were dug out and dynamited out to make way for farms or chopped down for firewood, the oak seedlings that weren't plowed under fell victim to unrestricted grazing, and that was that.

The Central Valley and its climate were dramatically reshaped long before the Federal Water Project in 1935. Dams, massive irrigation and thirsty crops like cotton only compounded what was already an environmental catastrophe. Some of the Central Valley is an arid plain now. What mother nature intended was for much of the valley to be oak woodland.

Bill Fosher said...

I stand corrected. I did mean to type "semi-arid," not just plain arid. I get so worked up about irrigation that I lose my head. And speaking of plain, what I have seen of the Central Valley sure looks like a plain to this New England farm boy. The largest single field that I am aware of in this county is 138 acres; most hay is harvested off fields of less than 10 acres and most produce is grown on plots of 2 acres or less. And that 138-acre field? It has an elevation change of about 250 feet between the highest point and the lowest point, and there is no place on the field where you can stand and see the whole thing.

Luisa said...

Flood plain. With oaks. It's big, all right: on a rare clear day, the first glimpse of the Central Valley from the Tehachapis will give anybody a Joad family moment.

They drove through Tehachapi in the morning glow, and the sun came up behind them, and then—suddenly they saw the great valley below them. Al jammed on the brake and stopped in the middle of the road, and, “Jesus Christ! Look!” he said. The vineyards, the orchards, the great flat valley, green and beautiful, the trees, set in rows, and the farm houses. And Pa said, “God Almighty!” The distant cities, the little towns in the orchard land, and the morning sun, golden on the valley.

And now: "This is the turning of the California dream."

Smart Dogs said...

I spent part of my childhood - some of the best parts - in the Owens Valley. That valley was a nice green floodplain too - before the aquaduct sucked it dry...

California simply can not maintain the population and agricultural economy it currently has in a sustainable manner. All the pretty words in the world won't change that.

Neither can a lot of other places. We're withdrawing water from lakes, rivers and aquifers faster than Sweet Mother Earth's hydrologic cycle can replace it. I was a licensed hydrogeologist for a couple of decades and can assure you that if we don't start using water in a MUCH more responsible manner, sooner or later, we're going to pay the price.

No matter how scenic or family friend they are - the floodplains and aquifers of the Central Valley obviously can't support the existing level of residential and agricultural development or they wouldn't need to import all that outside water. They've been robbing Peter to pay Paul for a long time, my sympathies are with Paul.