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The Westlands Water District has been instrumental in this transformation. Founded in 1952, it supplies irrigation water to about 700 growers in a 1,000 square mile strip of land. The average farm size in the district is 875 acres, although many growers divide their holdings into smaller tracts in order to get subsidized water (only farms smaller than 960 acres can receive federal aid when buying water.)
Over the years, Westlands has leveraged its strong political clout to keep Northern California water flowing to its farmers. In the past three years, Westlands has spent nearly $1 million lobbying for ag-friendly causes, and its growers and board members have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to favorable politicians. The district has also continuously litigated against environmental protections in the delta. "These folks are making a lot of money, and they have a big war chest for lawyers and lobbyists," Stokely noted.
Westlands has also received sizable public subsidies over the years. In fact, the district has still not fully repaid taxpayers for its share of the cost of building the California Water Project. According to a 2010 study by the Environmental Working Group, Westlands still owed $367 million on the project. And between 2006 and 2009, the district obtained more than $50 million in additional taxpayer-funded subsidies.
To many environmentalists, the massive public investment to grow crops in the western San Joaquin Valley has never made sense. "It's a huge cost to the economy and to the environment to give these guys water, and in the end it's not benefitting society as a whole," Stokely said.
And growing almonds has only intensified Westlands' thirst for water. In the western San Joaquin Valley, an acre of almond trees needs about 1.3 million gallons of water a year on average. Errotabere and other farmers in the region mitigate their water usage by employing computerized drip-irrigation systems that keep water from percolating below the plant's root zone, thereby increasing yields and decreasing waste. About 70 percent of the almonds grown in California use some sort of drip-irrigation system. "There's no big corporate farms here spraying every day," Errotabere said. "That's just folklore that continues to haunt us."
However, improved irrigation methods don't change the fact that tree nuts need a constant and abundant supply of water to stay alive. And since it's likely that growers will receive no water from the state or federal government this year — a historical first — some farmers may have to watch their trees whither during the valley's hot, dry summer. This could deal a substantial financial blow to almond farmers since growing the crop is expensive and time-intensive. Drip irrigation systems can cost up to $1,200 an acre, and almond trees don't fruit for their first three to four years of life, meaning that farmers have to wait for their crops to pay off. That's why when a farmer converts from annual crops like tomatoes to almonds, he's usually reluctant to change back.
The rising global demand for almonds also has made the crop irresistible to Westlands farmers. While it's hard to pin down exactly how much money the almond growers are making, it's reasonable to assume that profits have been good. For example, even though it has become much harder to grow tree crops in the region due to rising water costs and shrinking supplies, investors are still bullish about purchasing land that's suitable for tree nuts. Currently, almond and pistachio orchards in Fresno County sell for about twice as much as other farmland. "People talk about an ag bubble that's going to burst because the prices aren't sustainable," said Brian Domingos, a Fresno-based land broker.
To adapt to climate change, some water policy experts in California are considering drastic changes to the state's water system. One idea that's often tossed around is buying farmland in Westlands and allowing it to return to its natural state. This would greatly reduce water demand from the delta and benefit the environment, because western San Joaquin Valley agriculture uses about 35 percent of the water that's taken out of the estuary.
"California is going to be faced with some hard choices in the future, and growing crops where there isn't water is not a very sensible policy," retired UC Berkeley professor Walker said of Westlands. "Something has got to give, and these areas of agriculture are the most water-demanding and the least well-situated geographically for growing food."
Widespread land retirement isn't a fringe idea. Overall, irrigated farmland in California has shrunk considerably over the past few decades. The US Bureau of Reclamation has already taken 100,000 acres in Westlands out of production due to drainage problems and has considered retiring 150,000 more. According to a 2007 report by the bureau, large-scale land retirement in Westlands would actually benefit the state's economy.
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