Feds May Let Acres of Salty Farmland Go Fallow

Poor drainage has left land on the San Joaquin Valley's west side salty and worthless, a nightmare for farmers and the federal government, which provides irrigation water here.

FIVE POINTS, Calif. — Dry, brittle grass is all that pokes through earth that once grew tons of tomatoes, garlic and lettuce.

Poor drainage has left land on the San Joaquin Valley's west side salty and worthless, a nightmare for farmers and the federal government, which provides irrigation water here.

Over the years, numerous efforts to drain the poisoned land and salvage it for agriculture have failed. Now, the government is considering spending hundreds of millions of dollars to pay off farmers and get out of its obligation to irrigate the land -- effectively letting the 300,000-acre swath go fallow.

That's the preferred alternative among the latest set of proposals from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Another calls for pumping the water out to sea, an idea opposed by officials in coastal cities.

"It's a very complex issue. We've been trying to figure this out for a long time," said Jerry Robbins, a project manager with the reclamation bureau.

Drainage problems on the land stretching along a 90-mile stretch from Los Banos to Kettleman City are caused by a natural layer of clay beneath the surface that keeps water from draining through. The small amounts of salt in the water builds up over time, leaving the fields unsuitable for crops.

When the government agreed to irrigate the San Joaquin Valley in 1960, both growers and federal water officials knew drainage would be an issue. The government agreed to build a drainage system from the beginning.

But a partially completed drainage system that funneled the salty water into 1,200 acres of ponds at Kesterson Reservoir became an environmental disaster in the early 1980s, due to high levels of the mineral selenium, which is toxic in large quantities.

Residue from the evaporating water caused deaths and birth defects in millions of waterfowl, including missing eyes and partially developed limbs. The Kesterson drain was shut down in 1985 and the ponds were filled in with dirt.

Many fear a similar tragedy if farmers take the buyout and the water is left to gather in "evaporation ponds."

According to Robbins, it would cost the taxpayer-funded reclamation bureau at least $750 million to buy out the water rights. The farmers would still own it and could theoretically grow on it, but with rain water only, and that's scarce for most of the year.

A few farmers, like John Diener, have found ways to squeeze a livelihood from the land.

At his Red Rock Ranch in Five Points, the water is naturally filtered when it gently trickles down his sloping fields of alfalfa and grasses. From high to low, each crop is more salt-tolerant than the last, and a little salt is removed from the water at each stage.

He has other ways to convert the otherwise poison water into a more valuable product. He pumps it through a sprinkler, which sprays the water on a bed of slate chunks. They help separate the salt crystals from the water. Those salt particles are used to make dry laundry detergent.

"I opted to find a way to keep farming," Diener said. "I thought we could find a way to do what Americans do best and that's be innovative."

The Bureau of Reclamation has given the public until July 31 to comment on its proposals.

Gabriel Gonzalez, city manager of nearby Mendota, said the retirement of all that land would devastate his residents. Mendota, which has about 8,700 people, has a steady unemployment rate of about 25 percent, even during peak harvesting season, Gonzalez said.

"We are already a community that almost totally relies on agriculture for jobs and a tax base," he said. "There have already been thousands of acres retired and we've seen the impact."

Source: Associated Press

Contact Info:

Website :