SoCal Fruit Growers Stump Trees, Highlighting the State of California's Water Wars

Faced with rising water costs and a water shortage, farmers in the breadbasket communities of Valley Center and Fallbrook are cutting back their operations -- and cutting down their trees.
... "I think eventually there'll be no agriculture in Southern California," said Bob Polito, a Valley Center grower with Polito Family Farms. "There may be little pockets here and there, using local water, but for the most part agriculture in Southern California is going to disappear." -- North County Times
The white stumps of avocado trees rim a field in North San Diego County, ghostly reminders that Southern California’s agriculture has been shaped by water, or its absence, since this desert first bloomed in the 1930s following the completion of the CVP (Central Valley Project) portion of the California State Water Project (SWP).

This project, comprised of 500 miles of waterways, 20 reservoirs, and 12 million acre-feet of storage capacity, brought water from the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta to what was previously a desert. The Delta itself, formed by the confluence of two major rivers and an influx of the Pacific Ocean, creates a vast estuary teeming with wildlife east of San Francisco. Among the Delta’s inhabitants is a little-known fish called the Delta smelt, and the estuary is critical habitat for this now-endangered species.

Delta water also serves two-thirds of California’s residents and businesses by providing potable water, and provides irrigation for millions of acres of farmland, from citrus and avocado trees to melons, strawberries and nectarines. Delta water is critical to California’s economy (the fifth largest in the world) and its people, a population expected to exceed 50 million by 2030.

Since its inception, the demands of these competing users have jeopardized the Delta’s capacity to meet the needs of any demographic. Pollution, in the form of agricultural and industrial runoff, coupled with accidental importation of invasive species by fishermen, has further impacted critical habitat. Add to that the ongoing depletion of the Colorado River basin (at its lowest in seven years), which supplies a small percentage of SoCal water, and a reduction in the Sierra Nevada snow pack -- which feeds the Delta, and this year stands at 27 percent of normal -- and the situation becomes a crisis. Top it off with marginal precipitation (2007-08 was the driest on record since 2001-02), and the water wars between wildlife, residents and growers inevitably escalate.

The arguments are varied and often valid, and state that – since agriculture is marginal in SoCal in the best of years – residents should have priority. Growers retort by pointing out that SoCal crops generate roughly $3 billion a year, or nearly as much as the GDP of small African nations like Sierra Leone. Further, SoCal grows almost all the avocados that reach U.S. markets. Environmentalists, arguing on behalf of the smelt, reason that the tiny fish is part of a greater ecology which will collapse if the smelt is allowed to perish through extinction. Sport fishermen who use the Delta and its waterways point out that their industry contributes $9 billion to California’s economy.

In the case of SoCal, the tiniest competitor for Delta resources won. In August of 2007, Federal Judge Oliver Wanger ruled in favor of the smelt, an order which effectively reduces pumping of Delta water by up to one third. Regional farmers responded by stumping their avocado trees, which are less water intensive than citrus trees. This reserves more water for the citrus, which are not drought tolerant, and the stumping preserves the avocado tree’s viability, since avocado trees will sprout new branches with a moderate application of water -- a situation not likely to occur in the near future, since La Nina (a Pacific oscillation that leads to cooler, drier weather) is predicted to continue for at least another month, and possibly as long as late summer.

In the meantime, the white-painted avocado stumps -- pointing like bony fingers at the blue and rainless SoCal sky -- remind us that our mastery of mechanics and technology still does not give us the upper hand with that bitch goddess we call Nature.

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  • Posted on May 14, 2008. Listed in:

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