Dead and Dying–California’s Central Valley Dust Bowl
I took a drive this week from Sacramento to Los Angeles, and had an eye opening experience. Down the entire length of the 5 freeway, we saw not the green luscious fields of produce or green orchards laden with fruit, but dusty dead and dying orchards. Rows after row, acre after acre, miles after mile of them, perfectly formed, perfectly helpless….lifeless.
By way of explanation, these signs dotted the dusty dry roadside: “Congress Created Dust Bowl. Thank You Sacramento!”
My lawn is green. My kids have plenty of water to spray in the yard, yet California’s orchards aren’t getting a drop this year despite the best rainfall in three years and five reservoirs filled to over capacity.
There’s no doubt that we’re in a drought, but why the sudden drop in water availability only for farmers? Are the politicians in Sacramento more concerned about the plethora of city votes than the small handful of agricultural ones? We will all be paying for Sacramento’s blunder. The Central Valley provides up to 8% of the nation’s fresh produce.
Watching the staggering waste just made my heart ache. We had to pull over and take pictures. The contrast with past green was stark—it takes 30 years to build an orchard like this up to full production! Almonds, walnuts, citrus… Why do we have green lawns while these resources are left to die?
Politics and Drought In California from NPR
A few weeks ago, Ty and Janet Lompa were doing the unthinkable: cutting down 110 acres of walnut orchards. That’s roughly 10,000 trees and a third of their entire acreage.
“It takes 30 years to get ’em here,” says Janet Lompa, “and about a minute and a half to knock ’em down.”
Ty Lompa helped plant many of these trees with his father, and they used to water the orchard with flood irrigation from the project built by the federal government. But when water started to become an issue, “we immediately switched over to micro-irrigation,” says Lompa. “So we have absolutely no runoff.”
But the Lompas’ farm relied entirely on federal water — they have no groundwater of their own. They can keep part of their orchard alive with water they carried over from last year, but the rest can’t be saved.
“You can’t leave trees in the field and just let ’em die,” Ty Lompa says. “You’re gonna get bugs, you’re gonna get disease, so they have to come down.”
The Lompas are furious because they blame government, not nature, for the death of their trees. And Janet Lompa tells her four children that “the politicians gave it all to the fish” when they ask why there’s no water.
Politics Takes Control
Farmers throughout this region echo the sentiment that politics, not the drought, is the problem. Most of California gets its water from a huge estuary called the Delta, where two big rivers join in the center of the valley. But so much water was being pumped out of the Delta that a tiny smelt there, an endangered species, is disappearing. So late last year, a federal judge ruled that the amount of water being delivered to the south had to be sharply cut back.
In April, in a sweltering tin shed in the middle of the Westland’s water district, about 200 farmers gathered to hear what Tom Birmingham had to say about the crisis. Birmingham is the executive director of the irrigation district. Yes, the drought is a problem, he says, but he believes the much bigger problem is that court ruling.
“Since mid-February, as a result of that biological opinion, we’ve lost approximately 300,000 acre-feet of water. It’s floated out the Golden Gate.”
That means it was given to the fish.
“The state of California has gone from 15 million people when these projects were built 50 years ago, to almost 30 million,” Gary Coehlo says. “And we haven’t added one bit of water, storage, conveyance, dams — anything. Now, the need for water has become greater, and they’re gonna dry us up,” adds Tony Coehlo.