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How green was my valley
July 24, 2009 8:51 PM   Subscribe

How green was my valley: California's economic meltdown The fields of wheat, cotton and cantaloupe that sustained his family for three generations are gone. The land is a mess of fallow fields, cracked earth and swirling dust. (PDF - By some estimates, 12.8% of the United States' agricultural production (as measured by dollar value) comes from California, and the majority of that is in the Central Valley). However, his particular scene of devastation, Mr. Allen argues, has nothing to do with the credit crisis, the housing crash or the downturn that has California in a vice grip. It has to do with a seven-centimetre-long, semi-translucent, steel blue fish known as the Delta smelt.

This is not a story about fish. Rather, it is a story about how efforts to save the fish through a court-ordered water shortage have pushed a region already brought to the brink by recession over the edge... "In the Central Valley regional area, we've got 40,000 unemployed people. General Motors had 30,000 and got a government bailout. We're getting nothing."

See also: California v Texas
posted by KokuRyu (76 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
This has nothing to do with the economy, water is a finite resource in CA and the central valley farming industry was built on preferential allocations of free or nearly free water. The water rights system in CA is archaic and the state has been putting zero investment into controlling or managing water rights for years because developers didn't want it to happen. Now there is less water and the system no longer works: a situation that has been in the making for 40 years, not 1 year.

The bottom line, Mr. Howitt says, is that “we are going to have to make fundamental choices. ... It's fish versus jobs and communities.”

Tell that to the salmon fishermen Mr Howitt. Oh wait, there aren't any left.
posted by fshgrl at 9:13 PM on July 24, 2009 [12 favorites]


Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown.
posted by Artw at 9:16 PM on July 24, 2009 [13 favorites]


Chinatown, exactly. Cadillac Desert.
posted by billysumday at 9:21 PM on July 24, 2009


"In the Central Valley regional area, we've got 40,000 unemployed people. General Motors had 30,000 and got a government bailout. We're getting nothing."

Wow. They've been hiding their corporate and minimal ownership status for so long, in order to scam the government into funding their water projects and land grabs. It's almost surreal to see them compare themselves to GM.
posted by Brian B. at 9:21 PM on July 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


“You just look around and you think, ‘Why is this happening in America?' ”

Perhaps because America is not somehow magically immune to the effects of unsubstainable consumption.

You can't blame it on a helpless little fish or a crappy economy.
posted by islander at 9:38 PM on July 24, 2009 [7 favorites]


See also: California v Texas

Texas screws poor people as hard as it can, California doesn't (or hasn't anyway).

Also, I love how they knock California for "crumbling schools" when Texas has had one of the worst educational records in the country for years.

They also totally ignore the property tax issue in California. CA has a very low property tax, which is what most states use to raise revenue.

Also the idea that if we just drained all the lakes and let farmers use that water it would sove the problems is ridiculous. At some point those lakes would be gone and they'd be just as screwed, except they'd also live in a desert. It's stupid and shortsighted.

I think CA really ought to consider large scale desalination plants in it's coastal cities. Oh well.
posted by delmoi at 9:43 PM on July 24, 2009 [3 favorites]


Ah. Water shortage. I can see scenarios wherein the triple threat of population growth, drought, and species / habitat protection creates this situation all over the country. All ready the Colorado doesn't make it to the ocean anymore. Just wait until that really starts to dry up. Phoenix will blow away like a tumbleweed once the Central Arizona Project stops working.
posted by hippybear at 9:49 PM on July 24, 2009


“You just look around and you think, ‘Why is this happening in America?' ”

Because "America" — the America he was used to, anyway — was running on borrowed time. Or, more precisely in his case, borrowed water.

Water rights in many places in the western US are as screwed up as anything you'll find in the financial industry. Actually, I think they're more screwed up, because modern money is a pretty ephemeral thing, created and destroyed without ever actually existing in any tangible form. Many states literally have the same water allocated to multiple people, simultaneously — either by handing out more allocations than there actually is water available, or by not taking into account the effect of residential water use on existing allocations, like farming. People can be forgiven for not understanding the intricacies of a credit-default swap, but not for over-allocating water.

The fish—although it may purport to be a Delta smelt—is really a red herring. The farmers were depending on a source of water that had become unsustainable; if it hadn't been cut off because of the smelt, it eventually would have dried up for some other reason. (Perhaps because climate change just reducing the flow of water from the snowmelt where it originates, or increasing upstream usage by other communities.) Unfortunately, stories like this will probably be very damaging to the environmental movement as a cause and to the political viability of environmental-protection measures. But it won't change the end result: usage patterns have to change.

It's not made clear in the article whether there once was enough water to keep the stream healthy and irrigate the farmers' fields, and the water shortage is a result of new factors (development, climate change), or if the practice was never healthy from the beginning. If we knew that, it might be possible to determine whether there exist any possible solutions that would save farming in that area (e.g. rolling back residential development, perhaps by taking over empty houses and demolishing them), or if farming those crops there was simply a bad idea from the get-go.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:52 PM on July 24, 2009 [10 favorites]


Poor fishy. As doomed as a junkie's self respect in his quest to find rock bottom.
posted by fleacircus at 10:01 PM on July 24, 2009


Ah, so it's a "court-ordered water shortage." Has nothing to do with a century of mismanaged water resources, and ongoing drought, and a massive change in global weather patterns. All we gotta do is let this one pesky fish die, and there will be suddenly be enough water for everybody, forever! Hooray!
posted by zota at 10:11 PM on July 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


I live here now. Might me axe grindy because this stuff is really getting to me nowadays..

Drive out to the Salton Sea from LA. They have farmland and golf courses in Palm Springs. That's jackassery to the highest level. Even closer to the coast, there's not much water... Did everyone think we could just continue pissing away limited supplies of water? Continue farming using the classic american "Rape and Pillage" methodology?

It sucks that people are out of work. But how is any of this a surprise? The tragedy is that the people who get hammered by this the most are the ones that can afford it the least. The locusts that got rich off of it? They're going to settle down on some new section of the country, chewing yet another set of natural resources down to the quick..
posted by Lord_Pall at 10:13 PM on July 24, 2009 [12 favorites]


I think CA really ought to consider large scale desalination plants in it's coastal cities. Oh well.

It's staggering to me that every surface in Los Angeles isn't covered in solar panels. No wave farms, no wind farms cept the stuff towards mojave. Car Washes, Sprinklers, Swimming pools. No attempts to limit water other than some half assed rationing. No thought towards anything resembling conservation.

It's like some perversion of the american ideal, deliberately shooting holes in your lifeboat to show all the other survivors how free you are, how you're not afraid of anything how you're an amurican and you're damned well gonna do as you please, regardless of whether it kills us all...

Fucking L.A.
posted by Lord_Pall at 10:19 PM on July 24, 2009 [33 favorites]


Having lived in Fresno for several years, nthing many of the comments here. Aside from the fact that the entire economy of the region is built on drawing water from somewhere else via irrigation, it has grown dramatically in recent decades. The city population is close to half a million, as they say, but in 1990, it was a little more than half that. It has drawn retirees and Californians who were pushed out of LA and the Bay by rising housing costs, and the housing that has been built has been the worst sort of indulgent consumption you can imagine. Picture a place where it's 100 degrees or so every day for months on end and there's less than 10 inches of rain most years (almost all of it from December through January), yet houses have lawns with green grass that gets watered every day. I can still hear the hissing of sprinklers at 4 AM to 4:30, the tiny window on summer days when all the water wouldn't evaporate into the air that was <15% relative humidity most days. Why move to the desert and pretend you live in Vermont?

One thing that's also missing from this article is that those who are really being crushed by this are the last of the family farmers. Mr. Allen can't compete with agribusiness on margins and Mr. Potter's buying, so to speak. The only hope for them staying afloat had been cheap-to-free water diverted form the mountains through state-built and state-maintained irrigation systems. It's not at all likely that agriculture will die in the Central Valley, but it's almost certain that small farmers like the ones they're discussing here will be pushed out completely in the years to come. (Odd that they don't talk about larger ag companies in the article - makes me very suspicious of the source.) But to address Kadin2048's general query, as someone who lived there, knew farmers and knew people in the industry, I think the short answer is that the population explosion in the Valley is an unspoken part of the story. But at the same time, you're really looking at industrialized agriculture in the Valley, pushing every variable in the process into the red in hopes of squeezing out more pennies on the dollar. With a drought this long, you have to wonder if weather patterns are making a more permanent shift. If so, the water in the Delta up towards Sacramento could sustain the fantasy a bit longer if all caution and forward-thinking was thrown to the wind, but not for long and not with the growth that the county and the state have been counting on for years.

I cannot convey to you how happy I am to be out of that pit of despair.
posted by el_lupino at 10:28 PM on July 24, 2009 [5 favorites]


It's staggering to me that every surface in Los Angeles isn't covered in solar panels.

And even more so the Central Valley. Estimates when I was there were that there would be 310-320 sunny days a year. We would literally go two or three months without seeing a cloud some years. And most people running the AC and nobody with solar panels.
posted by el_lupino at 10:34 PM on July 24, 2009


Whiskey's for drinkin'; water's for fightin' over.
posted by entropicamericana at 10:35 PM on July 24, 2009


This has nothing to do with the economy, water is a finite resource in CA and the central valley farming industry was built on preferential allocations of free or nearly free water.

This runs counter to my Georgist indoctrination:

Consider that Wright Act Irrigation Districts were spreading fast throughout rural California, using Georgist land taxes to finance irrigation works. The Wright Act dated from 1887, and sputtered along fitfully until in 1909 the California Legislature amended the enabling legislation to limit the assessment in all new districts to the land value only. It also let old districts do so by local option (Cal. Stat. 1909, p.461). The old districts soon did: Modesto in 1911, Turlock in 1915 (Troy, 1917a; Mason, 1942, p.393; Mason, 1957-58; Jorgensen, pp. 168-69; Henley 1969, p.141; Gaffney, 1969; Ralston, pp. 161-63; Geiger, 1933, p.439). This was Georgism getting its "second wind," so to speak. Beyond much question, the idea was identified with George. The legislative leader, L.L. Dennett of Modesto, got the idea from his father, an old neighbor of Henry George in San Fancisco (Dennett, 1916a,b; Mason, 1957-58, pp.106-08). In Modesto and Turlock, "The campaign was conducted on pure Single Tax lines" (Troy, 1917a, p.54).

In 1917, rural Georgism got a third wind: the California Legislature made it mandatory for all Districts to exempt improvements (Stat. 1917, p.764, codified Stats. 1943, Ch. 368, Div. 10,11 [California Water Code]; Mason, 1949, pp.2,6; Gaffney, 1969). They then grew to include over four million acres by 1927, and to dominate American agriculture in their specialty crops. They built the highest dam in the world at that time (Don Pedro, on the Tuolumne River in the Sierra Nevada), financing it 100% from local land taxes. Albert Henley, a lawyer who crafted the modified District that serves metropolitan San Jose, evaluated them thus:
The discovery of the legal formula of these organizations was of infinitely greater value to California than the discovery of gold a generation before. They are an extraordinarily potent engine for the creation of wealth" (Henley, 1957, p.665, 667; 1969, p.140).
[1]


Also, The Role of Irrigation Districts in California's Water Development (JSTOR)
posted by @troy at 10:36 PM on July 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


Part of me thinks this is good because it might force people to get their food from local, natural, sustainable sources. Part of me thinks that the government should have set a 3 or 5 year time line for the water shutoff; suddenly, a huge number of people are without water and their livelihood.

But part of me thinks "This is why you don't try to irrigate the desert, fools."
posted by Turkey Glue at 10:38 PM on July 24, 2009 [3 favorites]




yet houses have lawns with green grass that gets watered every day. I can still hear the hissing of sprinklers at 4 AM to 4:30, the tiny window on summer days when all the water wouldn't evaporate into the air that was

Water is unmetered, or will be for a while still. Fresno sits on the very edge of the Sierras, which do a bang-up job of catching all the water California needs, most years, especially once we built all the dams -- Millerton Lake, Bass Lake, Pine Flat Lake, Shaver Lake, Huntington Lake -- to retain the runoff from trickling into the mudflats of the bay.

And most people running the AC and nobody with solar panels.

Back in late 2005 I was semi-seriously looking at getting into the work of solar installer in Fresno. Still seems to be a growth industry. In dry climes, peak insolation = peak AC precisely. You can stand in the shade in Fresno on a 105 degree day and be perfectly comfortable, and any kind of air current at night is nice & cool.
posted by @troy at 10:45 PM on July 24, 2009


Part of me thinks this is good because it might force people to get their food from local, natural, sustainable

Kunstler is a cock.
posted by @troy at 10:46 PM on July 24, 2009


See also: California v Texas

I like the Economist, but this is just silly.

"As [California] budgets are cut, universities will let in fewer students [but it will still educate far more people than do Texas public universities, and do so at institutions dramatically better in essentially every conceivable metric than Texas public universities], prisoners will be released early and schemes to protect the vulnerable will be rolled back [to levels almost certainly well in excess of those provided in Texas]."

"But as our special report this week explains, Texas also clearly offers a different model, based on small government oil, property tax rates that are actually higher than New York's, and a lack of services."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:48 PM on July 24, 2009 [5 favorites]


Water shortage. I can see scenarios wherein the triple threat of population growth, drought, and species / habitat protection creates this situation all over the country.

Or draw population back into the Great Lakes drainage area.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:52 PM on July 24, 2009


It's not made clear in the article whether there once was enough water to keep the stream healthy and irrigate the farmers' fields, and the water shortage is a result of new factors (development, climate change), or if the practice was never healthy from the beginning.

I drive 152 from the Bay Area to Fresno about 6 times a year. Whenever I pass over the erstwhile San Joaquin River I always think to myself WTF since it's nothing but a big ditch that you can almost jump over. Check out this Google Maps link to see how the rivers out of the Sierras just dribble into riverines.

Left to her own devices, Mother Nature would create an uneconomical swampland of the valley.

That's where Los Banos got its name. The original Spanish explorers got here and found an impassible morass from Kettleman City to the bay. Then Capitalist Man arrived, and built shitloads of water delivery infrastucture to, as quoted above, create more wealth for California than all the gold found in the Sierras. Fresno Country produced FIVE POINT SIX BILLION dollars of agricultural wealth, nearly all of it cash crops like almonds and grapes (the latter which get turned into raisins unless it rains in the late summer) -- that's the wealth of 6,000,000 ounces of gold for you goldbugs. Produced every year. This annual product is worth ~75% of the value of S Africa's present gold production at current prices.
posted by @troy at 11:09 PM on July 24, 2009 [4 favorites]


I don't respect any analysis of California Agriculture that blames the delta smelt. The species-preservation-based restrictions are just an early warning for how generally unsustainable the whole system is. Find ways to get by while living with the smelt, you have a future. Say "fuck the smelt" and you get a few years before it's so much worse, there's no recovery. Just like the depleted fisheries off the coast.

Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach enough men to fish and there won't be any fish left in ten years.
posted by wendell at 11:44 PM on July 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


Or draw population back into the Great Lakes drainage area.

Well, that would be the result of the trifecta striking across the country, would it not?

posted by hippybear at 11:45 PM on July 24, 2009


Say "fuck the smelt"

Fuck the smelt. I prefer living in an irrigated biome over a seasonal swampland. Mr Smelt can go find some other mudhole to frolic in.

Then again, I also think we should fill the bay with hundreds more Treasure Islands. That'd be cool.
posted by @troy at 11:53 PM on July 24, 2009


Smelt it dealt it?
posted by Afroblanco at 12:32 AM on July 25, 2009


Part of me thinks this is good because it might force people to get their food from local, natural, sustainable

Kunstler is a cock.


I'm sorry he doesn't agree with your rape, loot, pillage, drive species to extinction, fuck you I got mine future generations model of development you're outlining here, but he's right, and you're wrong. That "billions of dollars of wealth" is underwritten by US agribusiness subsidies and pissing away water in a fashion that makes a Hummer look like a delicate sipper of oil.
posted by rodgerd at 3:12 AM on July 25, 2009 [7 favorites]


pissing away water in a fashion that makes a Hummer look like a delicate sipper of oil.

Dude. Water. It falls from the fucking sky. Related (nsfw profanity).

Plus I don't think grapes, almonds, tomatoes, peaches, oranges, garlic, and nectarines are "underwritten" by subsidies nor are do they require profligate irrigation. Back when giants strode the land, Agribusiness and the New Deal paid for the the irrigation in the valley. These days we can only get the money to "study" intercity rail, but a century ago our forebears decided to solve the water issue, and built a world-class system over the 20th century that is all too easy to ignore and take for granted.

Wealth creation is cool. I like grapes and almonds and chicken and milk and tomatoes and beef. The farmers have to be careful wrt salinization and counter-productive pest control methods, but I don't see anything short-sighted in their industrial farming approach.
posted by @troy at 4:16 AM on July 25, 2009


Dude. Water. It falls from the fucking sky.

But, like, sometimes it doesn't. For a long time. Isn't that the problem here?
posted by billysumday at 5:05 AM on July 25, 2009 [6 favorites]


Dude. Water. It falls from the fucking sky

What? You can't be serious, obviously only a finite amount 'falls from the fucking sky' over a period of time. If you use it all up, it's gone. It's a bigger problem in some places then others.
posted by delmoi at 5:13 AM on July 25, 2009


I was thinking about water last night, and it occurred to me that if we ever go to a monetary system 'backed' by something again, it may end up being backed by water, not gold. Why? Because at some point, we're going to tap the huge store of minerals that is the asteroid belt, where there are mountains of gold, silver, iron, nickel, anything we want mineral-wise, and as much as we'd need for millenia. But fresh water isn't in the asteroid belt, and it isn't in our oceans. As our population continues to grow, fresh water will grow increasingly scarce and thus more valuable. After all, you don't need gold to continue living, or to have a healthy ecosystem. But take away fresh water and you die, and the ecosystem does too.
posted by jamstigator at 5:33 AM on July 25, 2009


"Dude. Water. It falls from the fucking sky."

When? My irrigation well ran dry early last year, just before all the fires, and the tiny fraction of normal rainfall over the winter didn't do much about it. We had to rig up the irrigation lines to our "drinking" well (which still needs a whole lotta RO before it's actually drinkable) just to keep our few walnuts, and fruit trees alive.

You can stand around proclaiming how it rains all the fucking time right out of the sky for free except for one small problem: for years at a time it doesn't.
posted by majick at 5:59 AM on July 25, 2009 [3 favorites]


*leans out, whacks the big gong marked OVERPOPULATION just once, then leaves*
posted by adipocere at 6:37 AM on July 25, 2009 [8 favorites]


> Part of me thinks this is good because it might force people to get their food from local, natural, sustainable sources.

I'm all for that in theory, but once you're out of the warmer zones of the US, or almost anywhere in Canada, that means a diet of cabbage, pickles, and cellared root vegetables for seven months of the year. And that is a pretty fine reason to take up alcoholism as a hobby.

The massive network of farming and freight that made it economical to ship fresh produce cross-country has improved the quality of life for an awful lot of people. I'm no more a fan of modern agribusiness as anybody else, but there's got to be better alternatives than either dismantling them or permitting them to continue riding roughshod.
posted by ardgedee at 6:53 AM on July 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


It's true that water falls from the sky. That is an astute observation.

Perhaps you would like to see how little of it has fallen in the last three to four years. This is a good place to do that. See especially the pdfs outlining precipitation in the Northern and Southern Sierra, which is where California gets most of its water, thanks to the (shrinking) snowpack.
posted by rtha at 6:55 AM on July 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


Water is unmetered, or will be for a while still.

Is that true? WTF? You don't pay for water in the desert? I live in one of the wettest parts of the country and our water's metered. And everywhere else I've lived, I've paid for water. And I water the lawn, never.
posted by octothorpe at 6:56 AM on July 25, 2009


So growing rice in a desert isn't a good idea?
posted by I Foody at 7:13 AM on July 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


Is that true? WTF? You don't pay for water in the desert? I live in one of the wettest parts of the country and our water's metered. And everywhere else I've lived, I've paid for water. And I water the lawn, never.

New York City (to pick a particularly large water user) only began residential metering in the mid-1980s. Even now, residential metering is not complete, and many industrial users (who use huge amounts of water, compared to flushing your toilet a few times) are on flat-rate plans, as are many apartment buildings and condos.

So yes, having unmetered or flat-rate water is pretty normal in a lot of parts of the US. Even when you pay for it, it is almost always fantastically cheap, a tiny fraction of what a person living in a Haitian slum pays by the liter for not very clean water.

Anyway, the real issue with agricultural water in the Valley is not some myth that it is about to all become a dustbowl -- it is that the farmers are switching over from surface to ground water sources, putting the aquifers at serious risk of depletion. It's basically uncontrolled pumping with no oversight by the state; if the farmers and developers drain the aquifers too far they are going to be well and truly fucked, far worse than any limitations set up to protect the smelt.
posted by Forktine at 7:26 AM on July 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


but I don't see anything short-sighted in their industrial farming approach.

The dams themselves are short-sighted, they should have been reservoirs created alongside the waterway instead of river blockages, assuming they should have existed at all. The government policies that funded the water projects were passed in Congress by giving speeches about tens of thousands of small farmers. No small farmers ever got near these projects, and a lot of it ended up being owned by a handful of companies and lawyers who got the water projects free from the government. Also, wealth creation by food creation is absurd, because we're eating out of their hands while growing more people more cheaply, creating a systemic long-term problem. The rest should be covered here. .
posted by Brian B. at 8:20 AM on July 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


So yes, having unmetered or flat-rate water is pretty normal in a lot of parts of the US.

That's insane. Meters aren't difficult or expensive to install. Charge everyone by the gallon, and charge even more per gallon after a household uses the basic X gallons it needs to survive. If farmers were charged progressively for water use, they would grow climate-appropriate crops or pay huge water bills for the extravagance of growing water-intensive crops in a dry climate.
posted by pracowity at 8:26 AM on July 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


I like the last link, which demonstrates the intricacies and dependencies of ECOSYSTEM, but instead of forcing agriculture to pay the price I think maybe you cali bunch could stand to rethink your landscaping methods.
posted by HyperBlue at 8:37 AM on July 25, 2009


Primus - The Toys Go Winding Down

An overaged boy of thirty-nine has left the wing today.
The first time in his life he's made that step.
Be numbed by the society and plagued by insecurity.
He's entered in a race that must be won.
One of the animals has left its cage today
IN search of better things so it seems to be.
But in this land of polyurethane,
Things are apt to get a bit hot.
As the toys go winding down.
C.G. the Mexican is a friend of mine.
We used to sit around the house watching evil dead.
Talking about the way it used to be...
We used to pull the stripers out of San Pablo bay.
Now the delta waters go down So. Cal.
And the stripers start to fade away.

It's pudding time!
It's pudding time!
As the toys go winding down.

posted by schyler523 at 8:53 AM on July 25, 2009 [3 favorites]


Dude. Water. It falls from the fucking sky

in the northern midwest - other places, not so much
posted by pyramid termite at 8:57 AM on July 25, 2009


That's insane. Meters aren't difficult or expensive to install.

Ah. But see, getting it through your local or state government, past the lobbyists, past the corporation back door deals, past the officials who are getting contributions from said corporations - that's both difficult AND expensive!

Can you feel the future? That's deregulation and free market finding the optimum solution for everyone! You know this can only lead to Thunderdome!
posted by yeloson at 8:57 AM on July 25, 2009


I don't see anything short-sighted in their industrial farming approach.

You got me chuckling with your "water falls from the sky" comment, but this line made me laugh out loud.

Nice try. I'm not biting.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:36 AM on July 25, 2009


I'm all for that in theory, but once you're out of the warmer zones of the US, or almost anywhere in Canada, that means a diet of cabbage, pickles, and cellared root vegetables for seven months of the year. And that is a pretty fine reason to take up alcoholism as a hobby.

But you don't have to go from one extreme to another. That's just a straw dichotomy or the horns of a false dilemma or something.

In the current system, it isn't unusual for every ingredient of a processed food product to be shipped in big, noisy, smoking trucks and trains and planes hundreds or thousands of miles, manufactured (perhaps using water also brought in from far away, as we are discussing here) and sterilized and stamped out and packaged, and then shipped in big, noisy, smoking trucks and trains and planes hundreds or even thousands of miles back out to warehouses and stores. People should be so lucky to get any real cabbage or pickles or cellared root vegetables from the local farmers.

Food should be more seasonal and less processed. Life should be more seasonal and less processed, less packaged, less air-conditioned and greenhoused. Grow what you can reasonably and sustainably grow in your climate. Bring in the food you can reasonably bring in from elsewhere, but don't be an extravagant idiot about it. You don't need fresh kiwis in February more than we need clean air. If people went just half way back in the other direction and away from the current extremes of food processing and packaging and shipping, things would be much, much better.
posted by pracowity at 9:36 AM on July 25, 2009 [6 favorites]


Meters aren't difficult or expensive to install.

Have you priced water meters recently? Here is a pdf that's at the top of a google search for "cost to connect to water," giving costs in that town of about $1500 to run new water service to a house, plus many more thousands to cut sidewalks, bore under streets, and so on. Residential meters, with drive-by sensors and so on, are not cheap, and retrofitting existing connections is complicated and expensive.

And water meters for large scale agricultural situations are much more expensive than small residential meters. Your household meter calculates flows of about 16 gallons per minute, with clean water and standardized pressures; an ag meter might face flows of 2000 or more gallons per minute of muddy and turbulent water and be located in a remote area with no access to electricity or paved roads. Prices into the low thousands are common for the meter alone, plus installation which requires highly-skilled field-fabbing and welding of specialized parts, which can easily put you up into the five figures just for one pumping station; a single large farm might have five or more pumping stations. (Metering an irrigation district, which serves multiple farmers and consumes as much water as a small city, obviously puts you into costs orders of magnitude higher.)

Then, once you have metering, you have to collect and do something with those numbers, which brings its own sets of costs and complications. Is, for example, a farmer's daily water use records public information, or something that if revealed could provide sensitive information about his/her farming practices to competitors? Who collects the numbers? Who bills for publicly owned water, when the pumping and piping is all private?

Irrigation practices in the Valley obviously need to change. But don't go calling for an end to dryland irrigation unless you are ready to, as mentioned above, eat pickles and sauerkraut for seven months of the year, and absolutely forgo fruits and vegetables that are locally out of season. The big production centers for off-season produce (as well as basics like wheat and alfalfa) in the US are all irrigation dependent -- think of inland California, southern Texas, parts of Florida, and eastern Washington, among others. Ending that would create enormous changes in our food production and distribution networks, and we'd all be the hungrier and unhappier for it.
posted by Forktine at 11:37 AM on July 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Farmers here have always relied on imported water to make their fields bloom.

That's the whole story in a nutshell, right there. And @troy, are you serious? "Water falls from the sky"? You might want to do a little reading and thinking before shooting your mouth off. Or go write infomercials for Big Agriculture.
posted by languagehat at 11:59 AM on July 25, 2009


Meters aren't difficult or expensive to install.

There are many areas (including mine) in the Central Valley where they are installed, but not used. Boggles the mind.
posted by Big_B at 12:05 PM on July 25, 2009


I'm all for that in theory, but once you're out of the warmer zones of the US, or almost anywhere in Canada, that means a diet of cabbage, pickles, and cellared root vegetables for seven months of the year. And that is a pretty fine reason to take up alcoholism as a hobby.
But you don't have to go from one extreme to another. That's just a straw dichotomy or the horns of a false dilemma or something.


Exactly. You don't have to grow alfalfa and rice in a desert. Even almonds, which are semi arid, probably make more sense in coastal areas like San Francisco. I feel as much symapthy for a rice farmer in the Central Valley as I do for a citrus farmer in Vermont.

Supposedly California is a leader in national trends. I now realize that this, coupled with the budget psychosis shows me that California is (or was) a trendsetter in the incredible whining sense of entitlement that is the US today. We want our food cheap, we want our highways, we want our gas cheap, we want we want we want, but we don't want to pay for it. We are a nation of whiners and California set the trend. Sorry people on this board who are from the Golden State, but you deserve every bit of tsouris your budget issues bring you.

So central valley farmers, quit whining, grow some 'nads and grow stuff more amenable to the desert you live in. If the market for those products isn't big enough, then *EFFING CREATE ONE.* That is capitalism at its best. Go to LA and show Hollywood stars chomping on dates and dousing themselves with Jojoba. "Desert Rose brand Mongongo nuts! That's how I stay slim and sexy!" You say nobody will eat them they aren't familiar. How familiar was Soy fifty years ago, or even Kiwifruit outside of urban areas even thirty years ago.

But no you won't do that Central Valley farmers, you'll cry, whine and complain and then pick my pocket and other taxpayer pockets so you can continue to raise rice, cabbage, and similar in a desert.
posted by xetere at 12:13 PM on July 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


So central valley farmers, quit whining, grow some 'nads and grow stuff more amenable to the desert you live in.

Wheat, cotton, and rice are WAY down the list for Fresno Ag production.

But no you won't do that Central Valley farmers

Go blow yourself.
posted by @troy at 12:24 PM on July 25, 2009


Nice try. I'm not biting.

Perhaps living in rural-ish California in the 70s and 80s has biased me. In Salinas, a friend's dad was inventing the salad-in-a-bag technology we consumers know and love today, while in Fresno I got to see and smell the raisin cycle for 4 years.

People with a lot of land from their grandparent pioneers generally made out like bandits. People with 8-20 acres had a supplemental income in the good years. The politics of production -- how much the packers charged, how the big guys were paying $10,000/acre to the small guys to rip out their vineyards and leave the business for 6-12 years -- were quite educational for this young mind.

The thing is, we *all* can't be office workers and professional artits. Somebody's got to dig the dirt and mine the mountains for our economy to thrive.

Oh, lemme walk back a bit and say the grower's labor practices have been generally shitty since forever.
posted by @troy at 12:36 PM on July 25, 2009


mmmm...
sauerkraut.

We might finally get kim-chi to really take off as a mainstream food.
posted by kaibutsu at 12:45 PM on July 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Is that true? WTF? You don't pay for water in the desert?

In Fresno, residential water has been unmetered, while commercial is. I don't know what the irrigation districts do to measure water usage, but they can tell who gets what scientifically.

When my family moved to Fresno in 1980 population was ~200,000 and a third of the present city was still fig trees. Also during this time the various planning agencies were in the pocket of developers, plus that Operation Rezone federal sting on the city council in the mid-1990s.

People saying Fresno doesn't have any water don't understand how the water cycle works. Now, *Nevada* doesn't have any water, because Central California's Sierra range is an awesome water trap for the winter storms that come barreling down the arctic storm track each winter. I guess the Valley gets the Sierra's west slope water, and LA famously finagled to get the runoff of the east slope.
posted by @troy at 12:51 PM on July 25, 2009


But fresh water isn't in the asteroid belt, and it isn't in our oceans

If we have the energy resources to fly to Jupiter and back economically then we'll have the energy to desalinate ocean water here on Earth.
posted by @troy at 12:56 PM on July 25, 2009


You know there's something wrong when Californians, who live where water is essentially scarce, have unmetered water and people like me, who live near one of the Great Lakes and have to have a sump pump to keep the basement from flooding pay, by the gallon.

Most of California comes across as an experiment in seeing how much we can screw the environment for the sake of human comfort. I think it's high time we acknowledged the experiment has failed and move on to something else.
posted by tommasz at 1:17 PM on July 25, 2009 [4 favorites]


Perhaps living in rural-ish California in the 70s and 80s has biased me.

living in rural-ish s w michigan has biased me - we have good farmland and good rainfall and do as well with it as farmers can these days

if people want to farm, they need to do it where it's possible
posted by pyramid termite at 2:37 PM on July 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


I try very hard not to allow my biases to influence my views, but it's so hard with farmers. Three weeks ago, I went on a week long camping trip up the coast here, all the way to Oregon. Everywhere along the freeway (the 1), there were signs from farmers "Congress created dustbowl" - and all looked like they came from the same sign-making company. When we'd stop at a national park for camping, I'd talk to the rangers, and tell them about the signs. They had little good to say about the farmers. The way they portrayed it, as far as the farmers were concerned, you could destroy all life, every single park could be turned into a desert by siphoning off the water for agricultural purposes. Already the agri business takes way more than their share of the water, away from parks, the water tables have dropped precipitously - water that's accumulated over thousands of years, that's been sucked up and cannot be replaced. Greed. Meanwhile, these fuckers put up signs criticizing "congress" for not simply handing over every last drop of moisture, so they can generate profits until we're all living in an actual dustbowl. Again, I try to be all objective and stuff, but then I see signs against abortion and for jeebus also, and I think of how these are mostly conservative areas with conservative voters who are more than happy to take marriage away from gays, who are socially regressive, whose short-term greed is destructive to the environment, and it's so, so, hard to work up any sympathy for them. Yes, I know there are good guys also, farmers who do sustainable farming and so on, but they are a small, small minority. The majority seem folks who loudly condemn the mythical "welfare queen", but more than happy to grab any agricultural subsidy that they can extort from the rest of the taxpayers, including the godless gay taxpayers.

So, while I understand that agriculture is an important business and we all have to eat, I wonder how the various economic incentives of subsidized water and crops are distorting the true cost of our food - and a cost that cannot be counted in immediate dollars and cents, but through environmental destruction, and trade distortions. I don't fear we'll go without food - there are farmers all over the world, who are being bankrupted by the fact that big ag is subsidized here and unfairly destroys their ability to compete - we'd have food grow where it can be grown without economic distortion. Maybe not all of CA needs to be cultivated - especially at ruinous cost to the pocketbook and the environment - meanwhile, there are places where farming is naturally competitive... maybe we can import that food? Yeah, farmers, cry me a river.
posted by VikingSword at 6:48 PM on July 25, 2009 [6 favorites]


Have you priced water meters recently? Here is a pdf that's at the top of a google search for "cost to connect to water," giving costs in that town of about $1500 to run new water service to a house, plus many more thousands to cut sidewalks, bore under streets, and so on. Residential meters, with drive-by sensors and so on, are not cheap, and retrofitting existing connections is complicated and expensive.

You don't have to cut sidewalks, bore under streets, or anything like that to install a water meter on an existing system. This document has meter installation fees starting at $295 up to $737 depending on the size of the meter.
posted by drezdn at 8:05 PM on July 25, 2009


My city's subsistence water and sewer rates and its water development policy seem reasonable, until you understand a few things:
  • I live in sub-tropical northern Florida, where we get an average of 51.5 inches of rain a year. I personally happen to live in a neighborhood that is in the delta of the St. Johns River, and this afternoon, when yet another summer thunderstorm drenches my lawn with 1/2" of rain, the electric pumps in the pumping station at the end of my street, that force water out of the storm water system and eventually into the river, for a 3/4 mile "run" to the Atlantic Ocean will start up, indeed, must start up, or my home will flood.
  • I'm glad it rains here, in summer, once or twice a week, on average, due to heat generated thunderstorms, because otherwise, I wouldn't have a lawn; I'd have a house surrounded by 1/2 acre of black sand, because it takes about 600 gallons per watering, twice a week, to keep my grass, shrubs, hardwood trees and pine trees transpiring. If I had to pay for this water, at residential rates, twice a week, I'd be using something like $22.32 of water/sewer a month, over and above base rate, just to keep things green, in one of the wettest climates in the U.S. Fortunately, this year, due to a wetter than average June and July, I've only artificially watered once.
  • And yet, because of concerns about runoff pollution into the river, from artificial watering, the local water authority established, 2 years ago, a system of watering restrictions, such that, now, during Daylight Savings season, residents of my water district can water no more than 2 times a week, and during Eastern Time season, no more than once a week.
  • Everybody got quizzical looks on their faces 2 years ago when the first (and less restrictive) watering restrictions went into place, and the first tickets for non-day watering were issued. Most folks had been watering 3 or 4 times a week in July and August, to keep flowers blooming, and to grow lawns they mowed 2 or 3 times a week. But, as word got around, people took the watering bans to heart, and bought river pebbles to cover up what used to be flower beds. Water use declined drastically in my community. And for the first time in several years, the St. John River hasn't had a summer algal bloom. Them things was stinky and the fish didn't like 'em, at all. Hooray!
  • However, because of the terriffic conservation job we've all done in my water district in the last couple of years, our water system is running a deficit, and may have to increase our water rates, in addition to the 4.1% increase we got in October 2008, for doing such a good job! Boo!
  • My city's efforts to help the St. John River are likely to be pole-axed by folks up river (including California corporation Niagara Bottling, who want up to 484,000 gallons of groundwater a day from the aquifer for its water bottling facility in Lake County! warning: link is .pdf format), who want to take up to 260 million gallons a day out of the St. Johns and Ocklawaha rivers! Boo!
  • 107 feet under my house, the Floridan Aquifier flows. For about $1100, I could drill a well down there, and have essentially unlimited, high quality fresh water, for no additional cost, for the rest of my life, except for the fact that my city water district effectively prohibits simultaneous connection of dwellings with private wells. So, I could drill a well, and drink Floridan Aquifier water, only if I severed my city water and sewer connections, and somehow disposed of any excess groundwater I drew, myself, without recourse to the city sewer system. But of course, if I did that, I'd also be just another straw in a resource that, by some estimates, is already over committed, and overstressed in times of drought, as far north as Georgia. warning: link is .pdf format.
  • For many years, my water district offered secondary connections for residential irrigation at a lower rate than standard residential water and sewer rates, since providing the additional water was cheap, and it didn't create additional sewer flow, which would have required additional treatment facilities. Tens of thousands of people, and a lot of businesses, including golf courses, hotels, and resorts have these connections, but because of the new watering restrictions, their utility is now about zero. And paying for new meters and connections for irrigation costs about the same as drilling an irrigation well down into the Floridan Aquifer, which is looking better and better to many people, despite environmental concerns to the north and south. In the meantime, a number of large water users with secondary irrigation connections are trying to get their watering restrictions lifted, without, of course, much public fanfare.
  • And yet, for all of this, for thousands of years, there has continually been a great fresh water upwelling in the Atlantic Ocean (warning: link is .pdf format), about 40 miles from where I live, another by-product of the Floridan Aquifer's tremendous flow. Overall, more than 700 fresh water springs dot terrestrial Florida, and hundreds more fresh water seeps and marine springs on both the east and gulf coasts still exist, diluting our salt water surroundings, and flushing our surface waters.
I make all these points, simply to say that, even in a place where fresh water is so abundant that it not only falls copiously from the skies, but runs in rivers, and rises, unbidden, even from the sea floor, that water policy is a political, economic and environmental nightmare. California's water problems are not unique, nor entirely the result of poor environmental choices (although I do wish they'd get their cotton pickin' drinking straws out of my backyard, from clear across the damned continent!).
posted by paulsc at 8:39 PM on July 25, 2009 [12 favorites]


I'm guessing these goverment subsidized folks are all staunch libertarians?
posted by Artw at 8:48 PM on July 25, 2009


I'm guessing these goverment subsidized folks are all staunch libertarians?

I wish. As VikingSword alludes above, Fresno County had a 66% approval rate for Prop 8.

The stretch between Los Banos and Bakersfield is basically Texas in politics and outlook, though Obama did get 49.99% of the Fresno County vote. Clovis is the home of the freerepublic.com founder-nutball.
posted by @troy at 9:16 PM on July 25, 2009


Thank you, @troy, for that California water wars link. I hiked the High Sierra trail last fall, and on the drive back around to the Central Valley, it blew my mind to learn that the Owens Valley once had a giant lake, now dried up thanks to L.A. sucking the water out.
posted by A dead Quaker at 9:33 PM on July 25, 2009


Technically, many of the area with water problems weren't deserts until after the Europeans came and filled in the wetlands, diverted the streams and chopped down the native, oak savannah to build the cities and farms. LA actually paved the beds of their remaining rivers in addition.
www.sfei.org/HEP/reports/HEP_Landscape_Ecology_2007.pdf
posted by psycho-alchemy at 2:36 AM on July 26, 2009


Can someone enlighten me as to where the myth that Los Angeles is located in a desert came from? It's so clearly not true and yet I encounter it constantly. Is it just another way people can try to feel superior?
posted by Justinian at 5:11 AM on July 26, 2009


Justinian you are right.
Technically LA has what they call a "Mediterranean" climate which means semi-arid, but not arid and usually no rain during the warm season. I think the keynote of a Mediterranean climate is that Olive trees will grow with little need for cultivation. Most of Israel BTW is also not a true desert, but similar climate.

Even so, a Mediterranean climate is prone to droughts and if you situate a metropolitan area the size of LA there, well you had better really figure out how to conserve water or you are in for a world of hurt.

Pace my (admittedly snarky) riposte that the central valley, around Fresno, which I believe is more arid than LA but still not a true desert. Many of the greens, raisins, apricots, almonds, walnuts etc. that are grown there depend on irrigation. Someone had to build it. I read that now they depend on aquifers. Those aquifers took tens of thousands of years to build up. They will be gone pretty quickly. Again, while I feel bad for the personal hurt those farmers are in, I think that agricultural and "development" policies led them to think that somehow because the *temperature* was ideal, the *climate* was ideal has now bit them on the ass.

Well going back to my snarky comment about citrus in VT, with government subsidies, I could build greenhouses in Vermont, heat them in winter and grow oranges. That would be patently stupid. Why is the idea of growing lettuce, raisins (from grapes) and similar in a semi-arid valley not considered as stupid?
posted by xetere at 6:27 AM on July 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


Not entirely sure that being a Libertarian barring one from voting for Prop 8, just as it does not bar one from being the recipient of goverment subsidy.
posted by Artw at 8:14 AM on July 26, 2009


> Can someone enlighten me as to where the myth that Los Angeles is located in a desert came from? It's so clearly not true and yet I encounter it constantly.

It's not a "myth," it's an overstatement. No, Southern California (outside the Mojave) is not a "desert" according to technical definition. (I can't begin to tell you how tired I get of the Spock-like obsession with technical definitions so prevalent here at MeFi. News flash: Human beings are not computers and do not speak with logical precision!) The point is that Southern California does not have the water resources to sustain the kind of agriculture that is being practiced there; to say it's a desert is a perfectly normal (human) way of emphasizing that.

Next up: Why the prevalent myth that tomato is a vegetable? It's so clearly not true!!
posted by languagehat at 8:51 AM on July 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


I didn't say "Southern California", I said "Los Angeles". Los Angeles isn't just not a desert by technical definitions, it's not a desert by any useful definition, even shorthand. This area was covered in orange groves before we bulldozed them.
posted by Justinian at 4:48 PM on July 26, 2009


And the orange groves were not watered by rain that fell on them. They were irrigated in extensive projects that took water from elsewhere - like the Owens. It's not as if the orange groves sprouted there naturally and survived and thrived on the rain that falls from November to May.
posted by rtha at 9:07 PM on July 26, 2009


But that's disingenuous, Justinian. "Los Angeles" means lots of different things to different people. Sure, Santa Monica and Malibu and Venice and other areas where moisture is trapped and contained are not "deserts". But "Los Angeles" could mean the valley and even further, to some people, where there is relatively no moisture at all, and would, for all intents and purposes, be considered a desert. Completely different climate zones.
posted by billysumday at 5:37 AM on July 27, 2009


Although I sympathize with Justinian, it's really hard for most people to grasp what a "Mediterreanean" or "chaparral" climate is. Scrubby oaks and grasslands = (to most people, even the ones with big heads like languagehat) desert.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:36 PM on July 27, 2009


Usually a desert region is defined by the number of inches of rain per year. But if the water just runs right out after it falls without soaking into the ground or being slowly filtered through wetlands and meandering rivers, then it is effectively a desert region because the water that falls is just not available.

As for the poor farmers, smelt or no smelt, they are going to have to learn to conserve water eventually. Spraying it over the fields willy-nilly, during the heat of the day is obviously wasteful.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 10:34 AM on July 31, 2009


It's well known that California is an island.
posted by Artw at 11:16 AM on July 31, 2009


I lived in various addresses throughout Los Angeles for over 40 years. The Westside and South Bay are not deserts. The San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys are.
posted by wendell at 12:50 PM on July 31, 2009


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