Restore the Delta Exposes More Evidence of Westlands Land Retirement

The Delta Mendota Canal, shown here, and the California Aqueduct deliver water to corporate agribusiness in the San Joaquin Valley and southern California water agencies. Photo courtesy of Bureau of Reclamation.

Restore the Delta, a coalition of organizations that seek to strengthen the health of the estuary and the well-being of Delta communities, recently unveiled a new study by California Water Research Associates showing that 100,000 acres of land retired by Westlands Water District is not going back into irrigated production, “no matter how much water Westlands gets.”

That study provided extensive research documenting how soil and groundwater salinization, not decreased Delta pumping to protect Delta smelt and Chinook salmon as agribusiness advocates contend, is the predominant cause of land fallowing on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.

Senior researcher Deirdre Des Jardins, of Santa Cruz based California Water Research Associates, emphasized, “Mapping imagery points toward soil and groundwater salinity as the primary cause of land fallowing near Mendota. This evidence, along with record of previous legal settlements, indicates that high levels of unemployment in the Mendota area are more likely the result of land fallowing that occurred prior to the most recent drought than any type of protections set in place for Delta fisheries.”

New evidence of how soil and groundwater salinization, not protections for Delta smelt and salmon, resulted in the fallowing of land is contained in the district’s agricultural lease, according to the group.

“Westlands owns essentially all of the retired land and is managing it,” said Barbara Barrigan Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta. “They are leasing the land to back to growers who are willing to try farming the impaired land.”

According to the master agricultural lease , these growers are ineligible to apply for any of Westlands’ CVP supply. “They must irrigate using available groundwater or water they obtain in some other way,” said Barrigan-Parrilla.

Des Jardins noted, “It makes economic and environmental sense, since the land is impaired by salt, poor drainage, and toxic trace minerals, but they also need to mitigate for impacts on local communities and third parties, such as Mendota, Firebaugh, Huron, etc.”

“For sure they need to quit crying that pumping restrictions have been the reason for fallowing lands and instead focus on their own soil and drainage problems,” said Barrigan-Parrilla.

The Pacific Legal Foundation recently announced that they have petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their challenge to the Federal Government’s Delta smelt regulations.

“With heavy snow and rain, Mother Nature’s drought is over. But Uncle Sam’s regulatory drought continues,” claimed PLF staff attorney Brandon Middleton. “The farm economy has rebounded from the low point during the natural drought.”

“But even now, federal regulations for the Delta smelt keep San Joaquin Valley farmers and communities from getting their full, contracted allocation of water,” said Middletown. “On behalf of our clients — three farms in the San Joaquin Valley — we’re asking the U.S. Supreme Court to step in and stop the regulatory drought by striking down the unconstitutional Delta smelt regulations.”

The group claimed that in the area served by the Westlands Water District alone, “an estimated 200,000 acres of farmland were fallowed because of irrigation cutbacks, and steep job losses occurred up and down the San Joaquin Valley, with unemployment reaching 40 percent in some communities.”

Barrigan-Parrilla countered the PLF claims, quipping, “In their press release, they now claim that 200,000 acres of land have been fallowed as a result of Delta protections. Maybe they should go back and read the leases?”

dan bacherFor the past several years, corporate agribusiness, the Burson-Marsteller public relations firm and their political allies conducted a cynical “Astroturf” campaign claiming that protections for fish have resulted in the creation of a “New Dust Bowl in the San Joaquin Valley, in spite of voluminous economic and scientific data proving this to be false.

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Dan Bacher

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