It’s now abundantly clear we have water problems.
The first problem is that the general public doesn’t realize the state’s recently proposed reduction in river water for farmers is more dangerous for them than it is for agriculture.
The list of those who will suffer from the reduction of water allowed to stay in this region is long – professionals, store owners, farmers, public servants and all of those whose income comes from agriculture-related jobs or who do business with farmers (from cutting their hair to washing their cars). With a significant reduction in water, farmers will not be able to grow as much of what they grow and what they grow will not be as valuable as they switch to less water-intensive crops. The income from exports of farm products could be wiped out with the loss of irrigation water.
At Tuesday night’s Stanislaus County Board of Supervisor’s meeting, county Agricultural Commissioner Milton O’Haire put the loss to our three-county region – Stanislaus, Southern San Joaquin and Merced – at some $1.6 billion. But when the multiplier effect is considered, he said, it is closer to $5.6 billion.
It is not an exaggeration to say the loss of 40 to 60 percent of our river water, especially if it is taken during the months when we usually fill the reservoirs, could destroy the local economy.
We need the business community to use its influence to help stop this assault. The average citizen needs to help, too. A flood of letters or emails to the governor and other politicians can have an effect if enough nonfarmers speak up at future meetings – even if it is inconvenient during Christmas week.
The first of several meetings will be Dec. 16 in Stockton, Dec. 19 in Merced and Dec. 20 in Modesto (at Modesto Centre Plaza, 9 a.m.). We need a huge turnout at each, and not just from farmers. It will be your opportunity to protest this water grab and protect your job and lifestyle. It is extremely important.
The second problem is the lack of understanding of drip irrigation. It is true that drip uses less water compared to flood irrigation, and it’s easier to push a switch than to maintain equipment for flood irrigation. But there are major negatives that should be understood.
Drip irrigation lowers the water table, our primary source of water during droughts. Drip also allows salts to build up in soils around the root zones. Without occasional leaching by flood irrigation, those salts can poison the soil, making it impossible for plants to grow.
Groundwater contains many more dissolved salts than snowmelt that collects in our reservoirs. If farmers are forced to pump more groundwater to irrigate their crops – as the state admits it expects – the problem will get worse. When plants grow, they transpire a lot of water, but the roots exclude almost all of the dissolved salts, so the salts left behind increase the salinity of the water remaining in the soil. In our climate, rainfall alone won’t flush the salts out of the soil.
This can continue only for a limited time before it becomes toxic. Without snowmelt, which is almost salt-free, our soil could be ruined.
Another major benefit of flood irrigation is that it raises the water table, which every Valley city relies on to provide water for their residents. In most cities, groundwater is all they have; in Modesto and Manteca it makes up most of the water used by city residents. The county farm bureaus will welcome any ideas to help forestall this extremely damaging attack, not only on farmers but on all the people who depend on farm production.
That means all of us living here.
Vance Kennedy is a Modesto farmer and retired U.S. Geological Survey scientist who specialized in groundwater research. He wrote this for The Modesto Bee.