The Broken Promised Land

Ten years ago, photographer Robert Dawson and I set out to update ecologist Ray Dasmann’s 1965 classic The Destruction of California. We had both watched the Golden State tarnish as its population doubled in the nearly three decades since we had read Dasmann’s sobering warning. Our update, the 1997 Farewell, Promised Land, devotes one chapter to the “coerced cornucopia” of California agriculture. Not surprisingly, some readers have had difficulty accepting its grim conclusion: that “California’s farming is on the way out.” As one reviewer put it: “In what century will this happen?” After all, there’s so much agriculture in California that it seems (to use an adjective commonly employed in the 19th century for things long gone in ours) inexhaustible. What could possibly curtail or end California’s much-vaunted $29.5 billion farming cornucopia?
Let’s start with urbanization in California’s premier growing region, the San Joaquin Valley. A vast 300-mile-long basin walled by the Sierra Nevada, Tehachapi Mountains, and Coast Range, the San Joaquin constitutes the southern two-thirds of California’s Great Central Valley. Both portions of the Central Valley are in jeopardy. But compared to the wetter, better-drained Sacramento Valley, the San Joaquin suffers from more salinization, more pollution, and more sprawl.
In 1995, the American Farmland Trust (AFT) released a study predicting that a vast low-density megalopolis would cover one million additional acres of mostly prime farmland from Sacramento to Bakersfield by 2040. “Driven by one of the nation’s highest population growth rates,” the report concluded, “urban development is threatening to transform this magnificent valley from a patchwork quilt of farms and natural areas into an urban desert.” (Hold that last noun: it’ll be back.) The AFT’s consultants estimated the direct loss of agricultural commodity sales at $2.1 billion, with an additional loss to support-businesses of $3.2 billion. Unless cities grow more compactly, the cost of providing public services to new low-density sprawl would exceed the revenues collected by Central Valley cities by about $1 billion a year, forcing tax increases or service cutbacks in its many impoverished areas.
Two years after issuing its warning, AFT released a nationwide survey, calling the Sacramento–San Joaquin Valley the most threatened farmland in the United States. Trust president Ralph Grossi — a third-generation rancher — told the San Francisco Chronicle that cities are “sprawling over some of the most productive farmland in the world.”
The trend has not abated, according to researchers at the Modesto-based Great Valley Center: In the San Joaquin Valley alone, from 1996 to 1998, urban development claimed 14,414 more acres, almost half of them prime farmland — up 25% over the previous two-year period.
If you look out of the plane on a night flight from Los Angeles to the Bay Area, you’ll see the dazzling plain of lights on lands that only decades ago produced food. Those lights stretch virtually unbroken from the Santa Monica Mountains to Mexico. Northeast lies darkness where the San Gabriel and Tehachapi Mountains momentarily dam the city’s flood — but the Tejon Ranch Company wants to develop that too, with water from the California Aqueduct. Beyond, other luminous nets mark the cities of the eastern San Joaquin as they coalesce along the freeways and around vast shopping malls, spreading haphazardly in response to rising land values in the Bay Area and Southern California.
The AFT report predicts that 2.5 million additional acres will be lost to such growth — the victim of a one-third mile “zone of conflict” around the cities, whose dwellers would object to farm odors and pesticides. The zone will hamper food production by forcing farms to move to less productive land, while worsening traffic congestion and air and water pollution. Growing cities will also further compete with farming for decreasing supplies of fresh water. In all, over half of the San Joaquin Valley’s cultivated cropland will likely be lost or severely impaired by urbanization alone in the next 40 years — even as the growth of those cities greatly increases their demand for food and fiber.
The reason is simple. As Farewell, Promised Land put it: “Soil produces more on lot sales than in cotton, cattle or almonds.”
As writers such as Peter Schrag in Paradise Lost and Stephanie Pincetl in Transforming California have documented, profit, payoffs, and PR will shape both the physical and political landscape of California as long as cities are the highest-value crop that land can grow. Both authors note how 1978’s state Proposition 13 enshrined into public policy the drive to urbanize by permanently capping property taxes, starving municipalities of revenue. To compensate, municipalities develop land to reap taxes, especially the vacant land so desired by developers.
But why the state’s prime farmlands?
One: They’re often convenient to the core of historical farm towns, now large cities. Two: Flat and fertile bottomlands (floodplains) constitute the cheapest places on which to build.
Without laws limiting development in harm’s way, floodplains are gold mines for powerful landowners like Newhall Land Company. In the 1960s, for example, when Newhall sought a plan for a new city on one of its ranches north of the San Fernando Valley, the noted architect Warren Callister suggested an Italian-style hilltown on ridgetops in order to preserve rich soils and orchards on the floodplain of the Santa Clarita River. The company quickly junked Callister’s plan as too expensive, opting to replicate San Fernando sprawl in the new “masterplanned” city of Valencia. Thomas L. Lee, company chairman, expressed the ethos that largely drives urbanization: “Newhall Land’s legacy is not of agriculture for the sake of agriculture, but of utilizing land as a resource.”
With sufficiently anti-social accounting, that “resource” can become enormously lucrative. Newhall’s family law firm, Brobeck Harrison & Phleger, quietly engineered an elaborate legal shelter known as a master limited partnership to shield the company and heirs from taxes to provide public services, causing its stock value to soar in the 1980s. The law firm’s 1996 yearbook noted that “the key to Newhall’s future value was to continue to maximize the value of Newhall’s land holdings,” (i.e., to “make city”).
Of course, politics drives the process. Campaign contributions, which once went by a shorter and ruder name, are known in the San Joaquin as “ag lettuce.” Such political donations make more than salad for great land baronies such as Newhall, Tejon Ranch, Kern County Land, and J.G. Boswell, by providing access to the public treasury or freedom from regulation and taxation. In 1982, for example, agribusiness lobbyists persuaded Congress and the Reagan administration to “reform” — gut — the 1902 Reclamation Act. However unenforced it was, that law had specifically prohibited absentee-owned farms of more than 160 acres from receiving subsidized water.
Taxpayer-funded water makes the “ag lettuce” grow, but the plumbing gets it there. Once opened in 1971, the California Aqueduct of the State Water Project sucked water from the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta in Northern California and moved it south, uphill along the arid west side of the San Joaquin Valley and over the Tehachapi Mountains to Los Angeles. As it subtracted prodigious amounts of freshwater from Northern California’s already degraded Bay-Delta ecosystem, the Aqueduct encouraged speculation on farm, range, and desert lands with the promise of cheap water. As it opened the alkali-impregnated soils of the western San Joaquin to irrigated agribusiness, it also opened Southern California to total urbanization. In conjunction with the federally run Central Valley Project, it could bring similar urbanization to the San Joaquin Valley.
In Farewell, I noted that in 1992, 21 water agencies then supplying more than 35 million western city dwellers formed a lobbying group called the Western Urban Water Coalition to wrest more water from growers. Such a move signaled an historic break in the long-standing alliance between California’s urban and rural water districts. It’s not clear whether urban voters will ultimately have the clout to take what they want. But in the State Water Project alone, rights to 115,000 acre-feet have been transferred from permanent agriculture to urban areas since 1997, according to the state Department of Water Resources.
What kind of cities will constitute the “urban desert”? Chief among the enticements of subdivisions with arcadian place-names in instant cities such as Tracy are $250,000 sticker prices for their three-bedroom houses. Relative affordability draws commuters ever farther from their places of work, exacerbating traffic, energy consumption, divorce rates, and air pollution in the process. When you add to local exhaust that which is imported to the San Joaquin by prevailing winds from Bay Area cities, and throw in an endemic inversion layer that acts to hold smog, pesticides, and dust close to the ground, you begin to understand why both people and plants increasingly suffer in the valley’s thickening miasma. In 1992, federal tests ranked the valley’s air worse than that of New York and Chicago. The California Farm Bureau reports that the University of California has “documented 25% to 30% yield losses in many crops in the Central Valley due to air pollution.” Fast-growing Fresno now has among the highest childhood asthma morbidity and mortality rates in the nation. The Fresno Bee recently reported that the city’s Superintendent of Schools, Santiago Wood, reluctantly decided to stay on the job despite severe breathing problems. Wood must carry an inhaler, a standard accessory of the gasping students in his district.
Industrialized agriculture and growing cities are crowding what little is left of the native environment, as we are reminded by William L. Preston’s Vanishing Landscapes: Land and Life in the Tulare Lake Basin. Reconstructing from historic accounts the biotic richness once contained by this now desiccated valley, Preston shows how agribusiness and cities have almost entirely extirpated the native grasses, wildflowers, riparian vegetation, fish, birds, lakes, rivers, antelope, and original people. Farewell mentioned the degraded 1,600-acre Jepson Prairie Preserve near Fairfield. It is one of the last and largest stands of native grasses left in the 15-million-acre Central Valley.
Of course, this is not a new phenomenon. The American Farmland Trust’s “urban desert” perspective, which Farewell shares, actually goes back 138 years to geographer George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature, or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action. In that seminal book published in 1864, Marsh extrapolated from observations he made in the United States and the Mediterranean to conclude that humanity was rapidly and blindly ruining its home to accommodate its growing numbers and appetites. He observed that much of the once-habitable world had already been desertified and locally impoverished by the demands of peoples and cities long gone.
The Council on Environmental Quality’s 1981 report Desertification of the United States enumerated the major symptoms of permanent desertification:
• Declining groundwater tables
• Salinization of topsoil and water
• Reduction of surface waters
• Unnaturally high soil erosion
• Desolation of native vegetation
Among the six regions studied, the report noted that only the San Joaquin Valley could claim all five symptoms. The first three are inextricably connected with contamination of both ground and surface waters by nitrates and pesticides.
Within decades, the San Joaquin’s artesian wells and pumps have removed groundwater impounded over the ages of geologic time. Where there are clay or silt subsoils, parts of the valley have subsided as much as 30 feet, permanently destroying subterranean storage capacity while causing millions of dollars in damage, much of that from expensive re-leveling of fields for flood-irrigation and repair of bridges and other infrastructure.
The California Aqueduct was at least partly intended to replace the demand for groundwater with runoff imported to the San Joaquin from Northern California. But UC Berkeley soil science professor T.N. Narasimhan says pumping continues to extract about a million acre-feet per year, from as far down as 2,000 feet.
Growers in parts of the San Joaquin Valley must go to such great depths for water because that near the surface is often brackish, especially on the arid west side where locally occurring and imported salts are rapidly building up in the shallow aquifers.
In nature, all freshwater will normally leach salts: dissolved chloride, sulfate, bicarbonate, and carbonate minerals. When it evaporates, the water leaves behind the salts — usually sodium sulfate, calcium sulfate, or sodium chloride in the Central Valley. The valley is naturally saline from millennia of mountain runoff on all sides. But the southern part of the San Joaquin Valley is worse, especially on the west side; the Tulare Basin, site of a former lake, has no natural outlet. The lake used to occasionally flood into the San Joaquin Valley. But it’s gone; the basin hasn’t discharged to the San Francisco Bay since about 1868. Into that closed basin, the irrigation water arrives from the north, exacerbating the salinity.
But the soil was naturally saline to start with. In an interview, US Geological Survey hydrologist Walt Swain recalled a 1950s report from the US Bureau of Reclamation noting that a square mile of western San Joaquin soil, when flushed, produced 200,000 parts per million (ppm) of salts — six times that of seawater. The Bureau flushed most of it into the San Joaquin River, though some went into the aquifer. Narasimhan cited a euphemism occasionally used in agricultural reports: “Salt is being stored in the shallow aquifer.” The demand for water — which carries those salts with it — has not abated, because much new production in California has gone into permanent crops such as orchards. “You go into a drought period and you don’t have the luxury of saying I’m just gonna fallow the land this year,” said Swain. “So groundwater pumping will increase in any year that the surface deliveries drop.” That pumping will build up salts in the soil as well as the aquifer.
On the eastern side of the valley, where soils are more porous and less saline, groundwater presents different problems. A 1998 report issued by the National Water-Quality Assessment Program (NAWQA) of the US Geological Survey pointed out that groundwater is the primary source of drinking water for the majority of the population of the San Joaquin Valley now concentrated on the east side. “Millions of pounds of pesticides and fertilizer have been used on agricultural land in the valley. Fertilizer-based nitrate concentrations in ground water frequently exceed drinking water standards.” Residents who cannot afford bottled water must do with tapwater, which perhaps contributes to the multiple health problems and high miscarriage rates of farmworkers. Many also suffer from direct exposure to sprays, but toxic drinking water was a problem at least as far back as 1969 when Environment magazine published an article titled “Poisoning the Wells.”
Natural and human-made chemicals have poisoned not only the groundwater but also surface waters, especially those draining off the western side of the valley into the Tulare Basin, the vast region of internal drainage in the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley.
But in that region, salts are the main problem. Some Westside Valley soils were naturally saline enough to be classified as non-irrigable. Groundwater pumping there eventually lowered the water table enough that crop root zones could be flushed of salts by irrigation water. Farmers must apply enough water to keep root zones flushed, but avoid drowning roots. In dry regions, especially where evaporating water leaves salts in soils, more water (the “leach fraction”) must be used to flush root zones. This puts off the salt problem, but doesn’t solve it. Every flush brings more salts.
One proposed solution: In the 1960s, federal engineers designed their water projects in the San Joaquin to work with a trunk sewer — the $500 million San Luis Master Drain, which would carry water away from the fields to San Francisco Bay. A layer of clay with low permeability underlies the soils on the west side. Unless flushed and drained, those lands quickly become waterlogged and too salty for crop production.
As designed, the drain would have carried waste water north, dumping it into the Delta near Antioch then into San Francisco Bay. In 1969, former chief of California’s Environmental Sanitation Division Frank M. Stead warned that extractions of fresh water from the Delta would soon “convert it to a wastewater system too saline to support [Delta] agriculture and completely disruptive to the ecology.” Stead cited a federal report of the time saying that the Delta water quality would be so degraded that drainwater would actually improve it: “This tortured logic has never been presented to the people in straightforward language,” he charged.
By the mid-1970s, cost and environmental opposition stopped the half-built drain north of Los Banos, about 100 miles shy of its goal. The US Bureau of Reclamation then diverted the drain’s agricultural drainwater, which was unfit for human consumption, into holding ponds at the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge near Los Banos. It was supposed to benefit migratory birds elsewhere deprived of fresh water. At the time, most scientists had thought the selenium concentrations there relatively benign. Years later, however, US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Felix Smith defied Bureau attempts to gag him and went public with high bird mortality and grotesque birth defects at Kesterson. Ranchers on the west side had long known that the soil there was bad, sickening and killing their cattle. The culprit at Kesterson turned out to be toxic levels of soluble selenium leached from those soils and flushed downhill in the waste water. In 1984-85, I helped to blow the whistle on the poisoned refuge while working at KQED in San Francisco.
US Secretary of the Interior Donald Hodel shut down Kesterson in 1986 and capped evaporation ponds in the vicinity. Unfortunately, the waste problem didn’t go away; it worsened and expanded. By 1997, the Wall Street Journal reported dangerously high levels of selenium in the surface water, plants, and animals at Kesterson despite the $30 million federal “cleanup.” Farther south, with no drain, growers had also created private evaporation ponds that attracted migratory birds. In those ponds, as Lisa Viani reported in a 1996 issue of Terrain, selenium concentrations far higher than at Kesterson killed an estimated 10,000 birds annually.
Others simply used the all-but-dry bed of the San Joaquin River as a de facto master drain. Back in 1944, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Friant Dam abruptly killed the river when it shunted most of its flow down the east side of the valley in the Friant-Kern Canal. When the river vanished, so did its salmon run and much of the Bay Area’s fishing industry. Now the river carries a nasty soup of salts, boron, pesticides, nitrates, selenium and anything else that it picks up along the way. The NAWQA study found “a wide variety of pesticides . . . in the San Joaquin River and its tributaries, some at concentrations high enough to adversely impact aquatic life.” Descendants of the Yokuts tribe no longer regard the few reeds they can find growing along its course safe for use in traditional basket making. That foul mix dumps directly into the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta. The state and federal pumps suck the stuff out of the Delta pool and include it in the drinking water of 40% of Californians.
But the aqueducts also re-circulate the waste, exacerbating the salt buildup. The Bureau of Reclamation’s Delta-Mendota Canal delivers roughly one million tons of Delta salts a year back into the San Joaquin Valley, adding to its resident salts, pesticides, fertilizers, and petroleum derivatives. Furthermore, as Orinda soil scientist Richard Strong points out, reliance on fertilizers in lieu of soil-building lowers water retention in agricultural lands, requiring yet more irrigation, which brings with it more salt. Bob and I saw in the San Joaquin Valley the same white encrustation that has killed civilizations since salt rendered the Fertile Crescent a desert. We’re simply doing it faster than the Mesopotamians could with their low-tech irrigation.
“At [salt levels of] about 1,250 parts per million (ppm), you start seeing some interesting problems with agriculture,” says USGS’ Swain. “In some native water above the San Joaquin clay layer, salinization has reached about 1,000 ppm. During the drought in the late 1980s, some irrigation districts were pumping 2,200 to 2,500 ppm. They cannot sustain agriculture on that.”
In the absence of drastic changes in water management, that will be the future of the valley: “It doesn’t matter if it’s 40 years or 100,” says Swain. “If you sit down and do some calculations, you know this.”
So in addition to rampant urbanization, sterilized soils, disappearing and contaminated groundwater, and toxic air, what is going on in the San Joaquin Valley will progressively and inevitably affect the rest of California through the state’s human-made plumbing system. That is what federal and state water officials, developers, water marketers, and agribusiness leaders do not want widely known — that in order to keep production going and subsidies flowing until they can replace farming with higher-value cities, growers will poison the valley’s water supply and the little that remains of its wildlife.
In their minds, no doubt, more publicly funded high-tech solutions — the San Luis Drain or the oft-proposed Peripheral Canal around the Delta or genetic engineering, along with much positive thinking — will pull the fat out of the fire. Or they won’t have to, for as novelist Frank Norris wrote in his 1901 novel The Octopus about those California “farmers” who treated their soil like mines: “When at last the land, worn out, would refuse to yield, they would invest their money in something else; by then they would have all made fortunes. “ Representative George Miller notes that the enormously powerful Westlands Water District now wants US taxpayers to pay its members to retire bad land it was not supposed to irrigate in the first place, while allowing it to further profit by selling their water rights to growing cities. Like those others who have recently plundered corporations, depositors, and federal and foreign treasuries, those “farmers” will likely retire to someplace relatively clean, when their chickens come home to roost — if they can find such a place.
Summing up two leading causes of the coming crisis in the San Joaquin, Narasimhan says, “One is the soil becoming unsuitable for agriculture; then the other is the degradation of the water itself, both in the shallow aquifer and at great depth. The whole landscape changes because of the soil changes. Then it affects the plant life, the animal life, and so on.”
And then there’s fossil fuel. With its voracious appetite for fertilizers, chemicals, field machinery, refrigeration, and food and water delivery systems, agribusiness translates prodigious quantities of oil into food. It thus depends on uninterrupted supplies of cheap petroleum and natural gas — resources increasingly menaced by depletion and political instability. Pushing agriculture from prime to marginal soils requires yet more energy to grow and harvest crops, but “this is no longer a viable option,” writes the California Farm Bureau Federation’s recent report on the Central Valley. “We cannot expect the same kinds of yields nor remain competitive in a global market if agriculture is pushed onto lower-quality soils that require higher inputs.” As part of a worldwide phenomenon, the climatic instability caused by the use of that energy will render farming still more chancy.
Without the kind of land-use controls to which the Golden State has been allergic, one other intervention will very likely deliver a coup de grâce to the San Joaquin’s farming. Powerful forces are once again priming California voters to fund and build another high-tech solution to its transportation woes — a $25-$30 billion “bullet train” between the Bay Area and Southern California. Such a train will hopefully reduce air traffic and auto traffic between the state’s two urban nodes, and it may well bring badly needed jobs to the depressed valley. But, just as with the State Water Project and BART before it, I have little doubt that developers, large landholders, engineering contractors, and their financial allies are salivating at the prospect of turning the entire San Joaquin Basin into a commuting suburb of the state’s two major urban areas, thereby joining them together. Drawn primarily by low housing prices rather than safe air and water or abundant fresh food, the new settlers will move into a toxic urban desert not of nature’s making but of forces and individuals far beyond their acquaintance or ken. And what, then, will they eat and drink, and what will replenish their souls?

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