Monday, February 26, 2007

Water Confusion Continues

California’s long, confused and perhaps endless, struggle with how to control and manage its water, (which is plentiful north and scarce south) revisits one long simmering issue.

Editorial: Unsolved drainage mess
Should feds cut deal with San Joaquin farms?
Published 12:00 am PST Monday, February 26, 2007

Congress and the federal Bureau of Reclamation set in motion an environmental mess when the bureau began supplying irrigation water in the 1960s to the western San Joaquin Valley.

The soils are both highly productive and highly problematic. While they grow some of the biggest almond crops on the planet and spectacular fields of lettuce, the ground contains high concentrations of salts and selenium. This particular element can literally kill wildlife that comes in contact with it. When the federal government started draining the runoff from the west valley's farm fields into a wildlife refuge known as Kesterson, the birds in the refuge began hatching mangled offspring that belonged in a horror movie.

The feds stopped draining the water into Kesterson, but they never solved the problem. Instead, they essentially put a plug at the bottom of a bathtub. This has trapped this salty runoff underground or let it leach into the troubled San Joaquin River.

Now this bathtub needs a drain and a decontamination system. But what?

Welcome to another California water conflict, where all the options are expensive, controversial and complicated beyond human description. And the political solution will involve the kind of bipartisan cooperation that isn't usually in the state's political gene pool.

The bureau's Central Valley Project is lauded in textbooks as a monument to the federal government's ability to reshape the West by damming a mighty river (the Sacramento at Mount Shasta) and diverting the water (via a canal far downstream in the Delta) to the San Joaquin Valley.

The CVP truly did transform the Valley, turning desert into endless fields of crops. But desert agriculture demands a sophisticated drainage system. If the water applied to the crops stays underground, it accumulates the salts in the soil and can kill the next crop if the groundwater rises to the root zone.

The original solution -- building a drain to send this soup to the delicate Delta -- has been a nonstarter for years. So what's the solution? Many environmental activists have long called for massive retirements of farmland on the west side. The farmers say they plan to retire some lands, but want to stay in business, and you can see their point. They are some of the most sophisticated, productive growers on the planet.