California's Thirsty Almonds 

How the water-intensive crop is helping drive the governor's $25 billion plan to ship water to the desert.

Page 4 of 5

There's also a strong case to be made that it would be better for the ecosystem of the western San Joaquin Valley.

Thousands of years ago, the Pacific Ocean covered much of the valley. As the sea receded, it left behind marine sediments and mineral deposits in the alkaline soil. Today, large quantities of boron and selenium are concentrated in the western San Joaquin Valley, which can be extremely toxic at high levels and tend to accumulate in irrigation runoff.

Much of the farmland in Westlands also has an impenetrable layer of clay under the topsoil — the remnants of an ancient lakebed — causing irrigation water to pool up on farms. And as growers transition to more water-intensive crops like almonds, the amount of toxic wastewater in Westlands soil has increased. "The more you irrigate, the more irrigation runoff there is, and the more exacerbated the problem becomes," said Sam Luoma, a former hydrologist for the US Geological Survey.

This problem has some environmentalists concerned that dangerous levels of minerals — namely, selenium — are building up in Westlands. And as history has shown, when selenium accumulates, it can be catastrophic for fish and wildlife.

In the 1970s, Westlands tried to build a long canal to ship its toxic wastewater to the delta and San Francisco Bay. However, funding for the project dried up and the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge — a human-made wetland in Merced County — became Westlands' primary dumping ground.

As Westlands' toxic wastewater built up in Kesterson, the selenium levels spiked. In 1982, catastrophe struck. Droves of migratory birds living in the wetland developed crippling deformities: Some were missing eyes, feet, and beaks; others' brains protruded from their skulls. The local populations of several species, including the black crowned night heron, were almost completely wiped out and almost all of the fish in the wetland died.

Since Kesterson, Westlands' growers have started storing their runoff in underground reservoirs and small evaporation ponds on farms. While this keeps selenium away from wildlife, it's not without its dangers. "No one knows what the long-term outcome of storing the irrigation water on the local farms or putting it on the local soils will be," Luoma said. He added that while another tragedy like Kesterson is unlikely, "ten, twenty years down the line, there may be many little Kestersons."

Longtime water rights activist Stokely thinks that a large-scale environmental disaster is brewing underground in Westlands. "All of their toxic drainage water is percolating into deeper aquifers, and in my opinion they're creating a multi-generational, underground Superfund site," he said.

The Bureau of Reclamation has said the only cost-effective solution to the drainage problem is taking large swaths of Westlands out of production. Even Floyd Dominy, who headed the bureau from 1959 to 1969, said he made a mistake when he decided to pipe water to the western San Joaquin Valley. "We went ahead with the Westlands project before we solved the drainage problem," he said in the 1997 PBS documentary Cadillac Desert, which was based on the bestselling nonfiction book of the same name by investigative journalist Marc Reisner. "I made a terrible mistake by going ahead with Westlands at the time we did."

California's elected officials, however, have by and large ignored the idea of buying up half of the farmland in Westlands and retiring it for good. "It would be cheaper to do that than to build these siphons under the delta," Walker noted, referring to the governor's Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP). "But you'll never get the political will to do that."

Instead, the future of agriculture and almonds in the western San Joaquin Valley hinges largely on how things will play out with the BDCP. If the plan moves forward it will be the largest public works project in state history. The cornerstones are two massive 35-mile-long water tunnels — each wide enough so that three H3 Hummers would comfortably fit in them at the same time. The tunnels would stretch under the delta, redirecting water from the Sacramento River to western San Joaquin Valley farmers and Southern California.

The details of the BDCP are complex (see the Express' two-part series, "Tunnel Vision," 6/12/13 and 6/19/13), but the main idea behind it is that by restoring tidal wetlands and cutting back on the use of giant water pumps in Tracy — which shred tens of millions of delta fish in some years — native fish populations in the delta would rebound. In turn, water exports from the estuary would become more consistent. "Building some kind of alternative conveyance gives you more flexibility and should reduce vulnerability," said Hanak of the Public Policy Institute of California. "It makes the system more resilient."

However, the plan is mired in controversy. While the state says that BDCP won't increase the amount of water taken from the delta, the tunnels would have the capacity to drain nearly the entire flow of the Sacramento River during parts of the year. And while the BDCP calls for a $9 billion investment in wetlands restoration projects, there's no guarantee that the endeavor will benefit certain threatened fish species (the habitat restoration efforts also depend on voters passing a future bond measure). In addition, reducing the amount of clean water flowing into the estuary from the Sacramento River could make the delta much dirtier and saltier, and thus less hospitable for plants and wildlife.

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