Reaping Riches in a Wretched Region

Reaping Riches in a Wretched Region
Image by Brian Woychuk via Flickr Creative Commons

By: Lloyd Carter

Subsidized Industrial Farming and Its Link to Perpetual Poverty

This two-part series shows how a long American tradition of helping small farmers has, in the past few decades in the San Joaquin Valley, morphed into a massive government aid program for large industrialized agribusiness operations—a program that not only drives small farmers off the land but also perpetuates rural poverty because agribusiness requires huge numbers of low-paid, seasonal harvest workers, many of whom are undocumented workers who choose to stay in the United States.

The Drainage Crisis Erupts

The soils of the western San Joaquin Valley (henceforth “the Valley) are composed of material eroded from the Coast Range Mountains, which are ancient seabed shale. These Cretaceous sedimentary rock shale include a host of salts, trace elements like selenium, arsenic and boron, and heavy metals, which created an alkali desert on the west-side over eons. Some farmland along the flood plain of the San Joaquin River, however, was suitable for farming, especially for a salt-tolerant crop like cotton.

To further complicate matters, several layers of virtually impermeable, thick subterranean clays run below the topsoil and impede the downward percolation of applied irrigation water. The result is that a “perched” shallow groundwater table develops above the clays and near the root zone of the crops and when irrigation continues, the salty shallow groundwater can rise to the root zone and kill the crops. Growers had known since before World War II that if northern California river water, which itself picks up dissolved salts on its long journey south, was continuously supplied to the west-side farmlands, there needed to be a disposal ditch to carry off the salty shallow drainage waters to the Pacific Ocean.

In 1955, the Bureau of Reclamation (henceforth “the Bureau”) proposed a $7.2 million earthen ditch to carry the salty drainage waters of the San Luis Unit to the Delta for disposal, under a theory that the assimilative capacity of the Delta waters would safely carry the salts out through San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean. The theory, popular at the time, was that “dilution is the solution to pollution.” It was to prove disastrously wrong.

Following Congressional approval of the San Luis project in 1960, farmers downslope of the proposed project, including Delta farmers, and San Francisco Bay Area urban interests expressed alarm that the agricultural drainage waters that were to be dumped into the Delta were not safe. Irrigation districts immediately north of the San Luis Unit were worried an earthen drainage ditch would leak salty water into their fields, harming their crops.

In 1965, Congress prohibited the selection of a final discharge point for the San Luis effluent until, among other provisions, a pollution study was completed by the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Planning for a drain to the Delta was completed by the late 1970s, but completion of the San Luis Drain was held up by funding restraints and California agency concerns. The State Water Resources Control Board demanded that the Bureau complete numerous studies to establish the safety of the drain water to be dumped in the Delta.

Between 1968 and 1975, the Bureau completed 82 miles of the cement-lined San Luis Drain to the 5,900-acre Kesterson ranch, a former cattle/dairy ranch in Merced County that was surrounded by the Grasslands Water District, a mixture of popular winter duck-hunting clubs and summer cattle ranches. The Bureau built the first 1,280 acres of “holding” or evaporation ponds at the Kesterson Ranch and agreed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to establish a national wildlife refuge at that site for ducks, geese and migratory birds that would utilize the brackish drainage water, despite warnings by some biologists that the drain water would be lethal to wildlife. Drain water would be held at the Kesterson ponds in the summer and funneled north in the winter during the rainy season.

For the first few years of their existence, the Kesterson Reservoir ponds held fresh water and attracted large numbers of birds and wildlife. In 1978, some mixed drain water/freshwater was channeled to the evaporation ponds; by 1981, full-strength drain water was flowing to Kesterson ponds. The results were dramatic. By 1983, all the freshwater fish in the ponds (except tiny mosquito fish) had died off. In the spring of 1983, massive bird die-offs were observed, and federal biologists discovered grotesque deformities in hatchlings of several bird species and an almost total lack of reproduction in several bird species. The deformities were quickly attributed to selenium in the Kesterson food chain. The selenium occurring naturally in the Westlands fields had been dissolved by irrigation and carried to Kesterson in the drainage water.

In February 1985, the State Water Resources Control Board ordered the Kesterson ponds cleaned up or closed, ruling continued irrigation of high selenium soils could be a public nuisance. On March 15, 1985, in a dramatic public hearing of the House Subcommittee on Water and Power Resources in Los Banos, an Interior Department official, citing apparent violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in the bird deaths at Kesterson, announced the Kesterson evaporation ponds would be closed and water deliveries to the Westlands would be shut off.

On March 29, 1985, the Interior Secretary agreed to restore water deliveries to the Westlands and work with the irrigation district to resolve the drainage crisis. The Westlands could continue to funnel drainage to Kesterson until June 30, 1986, but after that the failed evaporation-pond experiment at the beleaguered wildlife refuge would be permanently halted.

Various local, university, state and federal agencies then launched a joint six-year, $50 million study on ways to resolve the agricultural drainage crisis in the western Valley. In September 1990, a report was issued, recommending, among other things, the retirement of at least 75,000 acres of salt-impaired farmlands.

In 1991, a group of original Westlands landowners filed suit in Fresno federal district court against the Bureau and the Westlands, charging damage to their land by the failure of the water district and the federal agency to complete a drainage system. On March 13, 1995, U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger issued a partial judgment based on his conclusion that the San Luis Act established a mandatory duty of the Bureau to provide drainage, which had not been excused despite the developments at Kesterson. In the judgment, Judge Wanger ordered the Secretary of the Interior and the Bureau to “take such reasonable and necessary actions to promptly prepare, file and pursue an application for a discharge permit” with the California Water Resources Control Board.

Judge Wanger’s judgment was appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, and in 2000, a majority of the appellate panel in Firebaugh Canal Co. v. United States affirmed Wanger in part and reversed him in part. The majority concluded Congressional action in the long and tortured history of the San Luis Unit both before and after the Kesterson catastrophe indicated that in meeting its mandate to provide drainage service, the Bureau has discretion to apply to the state of California for a permit to build a drainage canal to the Delta or to explore other options for resolving the drainage crisis.

The dissent by Circuit Judge Stephen S. Trott in the Firebaugh ruling drew a far different conclusion. Judge Trott wrote that

    Congress and various agencies of our government have failed for many years to come to grips with the difficult issues in this case, issues arising primarily from legitimate environmental concerns such as what the effluent from the project would do to the San Francisco Bay. The Kesterson Reservoir experience and its incompatibility with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and other valid health and safety concerns proves once again that for every benefit, there is a cost somewhere that must be borne by someone.

The result of the 9th Circuit’s 2000 decision in Firebaugh was that the Bureau was ordered back to the drawing board to come up with another drainage plan that was effective, would protect wildlife and was economically feasible. Eight years dragged by while the Bureau worked on new solutions to the drainage problem. Everything was tried, from recycling, to treatment techniques to remove salts and trace elements, to salt-tolerant crops and trees, to sprinklers to more quickly evaporate the salty drain water.

In 2007, the Bureau released the 5,000-page San Luis Drainage Feature Re-evaluation Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). In brief, the preferred alternative in the EIS calls for idling 194,000 acres of high selenium farmland (mostly in the Westlands) and building 1,900 acres of evaporation ponds while continuing to work on technologies to safely remove salts, selenium and other potential pollutants from the drainage water at a reasonable cost. Costs of a government-built drainage system, with maximum land retirement at up to $2,600 an acre, were estimated at $2.7 billion.

In 2007 and 2008, cutbacks in water deliveries due to either drought conditions or fishery problems reduced the district’s water supply by an estimated 30%–50%. In 2008, for the first time in history, the commercial and recreational salmon seasons were canceled along the California and Oregon coasts because of a precipitous drop in Delta salmon populations the past few years.

In December 2007, Judge Wanger, responding to a suit filed by environmental groups, issued an order to protect the Delta smelt, a species protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. Western Valley growers argued the ruling would cut deeply into their Delta water supplies and cause major economic damage to the farming community.

The order followed a May 2007 decision by Judge Wanger that the Bureau’s assessment of the risk to smelt from the federal agency’s massive pumps in the south Delta was illegal and must be rewritten. State and federal water-project managers had relied on the flawed biological opinion by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to justify increased water exports to farms and cities south of the Delta. A rewritten “biological opinion” was issued in December 2008, confirming the suspicion of environmentalists that the Bureau’s Delta pumping was indeed hurting the fishery. It appears from these events that the go-go days of heavy pumping from the Delta are over, and environmental cutbacks in Delta pumping in all but heavy rainfall years will become the “new normal” despite the Westlands’ protestations.

Because of the enormous cost of completing a federal drainage canal, the Westlands has suggested to the government that it would take over resolution of the drainage crisis in exchange for debt forgiveness, a guaranteed water supply and takeover of some federal project plumbing. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D–Calif.) was approached about the possibility of brokering a deal for the Westlands in Congress. The Bureau proposed draft legislation in November 2008 and circulated it to interested parties. The reaction of environmental and fishing interests was swift and hostile.

In exchange for relieving the federal government of responsibility for finding a drainage solution, growers in the San Luis Unit and the federal irrigation districts immediately north of the Westlands in the Delta-Mendota Service area wanted the draft legislation to include the following:

• Congressional approval of the Grasslands Bypass Project.

      • A water-delivery contract in perpetuity.

• A $100 million reduction in the bill the San Luis Unit owes the federal government for capital costs associated with its construction.

• Subsidized electricity for any drainage-treatment options requiring electrical power.

• Relief from certain provisions of the 1992 CVP Improvement Act.

• Transfer from the federal government to the Westlands of title to all pumping and diversion facilities along the San Luis Canal or the Mendota Pool, the Pleasant Valley Pumping Plant, and distribution and drainage-collector systems.

• A provision to allow the Westlands and the adjacent federal water districts to have two years after the legislation is passed to provide state and federal authorities with an acceptable drainage plan.

Undiscussed was the fact that neither Judge Wanger’s order of 1995 nor the 9th Circuit’s 2000 decision in Firebaugh requires the federal government to actually pay for a drainage solution. The ultimate financial burden for any drainage fix still remains with the San Luis Unit.

Critics of the proposed legislation, including farm groups, anglers and environmentalists, suspect the Westlands’ real motive in taking over the unsolvable drainage problem could be to secure a reliable water source that it can then sell on the open market (including for urban uses) in California, reaping windfall profits as the marginal lands in the district continue to salt up and go out of production—a charge the Westlands denies.

In public comments on the proposed Westlands bailout legislation, the California Water Impact Network (C-WIN) and the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA) noted that the National Economic Development Alternative cost/benefit analysis for the San Luis Drainage EIS showed that the Bureau, by favoring a proposal to idle only 194,000 acres of selenium-tainted problem lands (similar to the proposed Westlands legislation) instead of the maximum land-retirement scenario of 394,000 acres in the San Luis Unit (favored by wildlife agencies and fishery groups) could end up costing taxpayers an extra $780 million by 2050.

An estimated 100,000 acres in the Westlands have already gone out of production in the last few years because they salted up for lack of drainage. This includes land covered by a $140 million 2002 Interior Department settlement of a lawsuit against the Bureau and the Westlands filed by 19 old-guard Westlands families who saw 32,400 acres of their farmland ruined by lack of drainage. That controversial settlement included $70 million for just four prominent farming families.

On Dec. 1, 2008, the C-WIN and the CSPA filed suit in Sacramento Superior Court seeking 1) to halt all water exports from the Delta until the fishery is stabilized and 2) to have the court declare irrigation of high-selenium soils an unreasonable use of water and a public nuisance. A week later, the Westlands and a coalition of water districts filed suit to block the reductions in Delta pumping ordered by the California Department of Fish and Game to protect fish, contending the U.S. Constitution bars state control over CVP water.

In January 2009, state and federal fishery biologists said populations of two indicator species of Delta fish, the smelt and the threadfin shad, again dropped to record lows in 2008. Biologists are not surprised.

Westlands Today and the Subsidies That Keep It Going


As of September 2009, the Westlands growers were awaiting the introduction of a bill by Sen. Feinstein that would provide them a secure—if diminished—supply of northern California water and relieve the Bureau of responsibility for the half-century-old drainage problem.

While the Westlands growers contend that cutbacks in water supplies have devastated the western Valley economy, it should be remembered that many west-side communities were desperately poor decades before the current cutbacks in water to the Westlands, back in the days when cheap water flowed freely and the Westlands got its full (or nearly full) annual allotment of 1.15 million acre-feet of Delta water—enough water to meet the needs of 11 million urban users.

In July 2008, California newspapers reported on a study that revealed only 6.5% of the 20th U.S. Congressional District’s adults were college graduates, compared to 62.6% in the top-ranked district, the wealthy Upper East Side of Manhattan in New York City. Most disturbing, residents of Manhattan’s Upper East Side lived, on average, four and a half years longer than the residents of the 20th district. In Fresno County, the poverty rate runs at 20%. It is 17.2% in Kings County and 18.1% in Kern County.

In Huron, which had an estimated population of 7,174 in 2007, and which is the Westlands district’s biggest town and 98% Hispanic, 34.6% of the town’s residents live below the poverty line, compared to 12.4% statewide. Fourteen percent of the town’s residents had income levels 50% below the poverty level.

Eighty-two percent of the children at Huron’s continuation high school qualified for the free lunch program. Of these students, none qualified for gifted and talented programs. A quarter of the children were in migrant education programs and 71% were designated as English learners, meaning English was their second language. Eighty-eight percent of the students’ parents did not graduate from high school.

In 2005, Fresno County Supervisor Phil Larson, who represents the Westlands area, described inadequate housing in Mendota, a town in the Westlands: “A lot of people are living in garages here.” Some live in their cars or trucks or camp in secluded spots with no sanitation or piped water. And, surprisingly, there is hunger among the poorest in this land of plenty, the nation’s fruit basket. In a 2007 report by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, researchers estimated 120,500 low-income adults in the Valley had skipped meals and occasionally gone to bed hungry in the previous year.

Unsafe drinking water in farmworker encampments remains a serious health threat, and air quality in the Valley is considered among the worst in the nation. Its childhood asthma rate is California’s highest. The Valley exceeds the state standard for particulate matter an average of 90–100 days per year.

The unemployment and the limited formal education among some second-generational children of seasonal workers may also be linked to evidence of increased gang and drug activity in such rural communities.

In a speech to Congress on Dec. 13, 2005, Rep. Jim Costa, who represents the 20th district, urged support of the Methamphetamine Remediation Act to combat the scourge of methamphetamine abuse nationwide, noting that “meth is California’s largest drug threat, and the Valley suffers one of the highest rates of abuse, both in production and use.”

Children having children is also a problem among the offspring of farmworkers. “Latinos still have the highest incidence of teen pregnancy in California, but look at the hot spots: San Joaquin Valley, Imperial Valley, patches around Salinas,” says Hugo Morales, a Harvard University graduate who operates Radio Bilingue, which serves Fresno’s farmworker community. “That’s where the poverty is. This is the common factor, and education is the key to getting out of poverty.”

However, education is difficult. The Fresno Unified School District graduates only 58% of eligible students from high school and only 41% of Latino children. Mendota High School, on the Westlands border, did not even open until 1993. There are no high schools inside the Westlands boundaries. Some 98.7% of the Mendota High School students are Latino. Only 0.5% of the students are white, suggesting that the children of the growers, who are overwhelmingly white, live far from their parents’ fields.

There are also reports of high teenage pregnancy rates in some rural Valley communities with higher percentages of immigrant farmworkers. The Valley’s overall teen birthrates are the highest in the state and more than twice that of the San Francisco Bay Area.

In contrast to the squalid conditions of the farmworker towns and the bleak prospects for the offspring of immigrant farmworkers, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) estimates that annual subsidies to the Westlands’ claimed 700 farms, in the form of crop subsidies ($6 million), water subsidies ($24 million) and power subsidies ($71 million), total more than $100 million a year.

One little-noticed subsidy is cheap electricity to pump all that water uphill from the Delta to the Westlands. The EWG estimates the electricity subsidy for the CVP is $100 million a year, with the Westlands getting $71 million of that annual power subsidy in 2002—an average of $165,000 per farm.

In addition to traditional crop subsidies for cotton, wheat and rice, there are many other subsidies for growers in the Valley, including tax breaks for farmland under California’s Williamson Land Act (which reduces local property taxes on farmland by 20%–75%); technical aid from local, state and federal farm advisers; low-interest or interest-free loans and outright grants from state water bond programs or state agencies; and many state and federal tax breaks for various farming activities.

Most Westlands growers live far from the bleak and industrialized farmlands of the district; many reside in an exclusive enclave of mansions in north Fresno, in the 93711 zip code, which receives more federal farm subsidy money than any other zip code in America. And even the City of Fresno (with an urban area population nearing half a million), which has long prided itself as the capital of the nation’s most productive farm county (with a gross annual farm income of more than $5.3 billion), was the poorest of America’s 50 largest cities, finishing even behind post–Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, in a 2005 study by the Brookings Institution. The study found that 43.5% of Fresno’s poor people live in “extreme poverty neighborhoods” compared, for example, to 22.4% of the poverty-stricken in Los Angeles.



The subsidized factory farm economy, it seems, does not have much of a trickle-down effect for the families and communities of workers who bring in the harvest. In fact, it appears as though this system has helped to foster a culture of unsustainable farming practices, caused large-scale environmental degradation and created a massive socioeconomic rift between landowners and their primarily Latino workforce. Despite efforts by numerous environmental groups and myriad other community organizers, this publicly supported system of subsidized factory farming in the region has caused considerable damage to both the local community and the natural environment.

Now, even with new legislation that will determine the future viability of the Westlands’ critical irrigation import infrastructure, it seems inevitable that the political clout of the nation’s most powerful irrigation district will somehow prevail to perpetuate this culture of social, economic and natural inequity.

Indeed, one cannot help but see two different agricultural worlds among the eastern and western flanks of the Valley. The east side, where the original irrigation colonies began 130 years ago, is full of orchards and vineyards and farmhouses every quarter of a mile and small towns every few miles. In the Westlands, with a single giant farm sometimes reaching tens of thousands of acres, one can drive for many miles down I-5 through cotton and row-crop fields without ever seeing a farmhouse or the all-but-invisible farmworker communities. It is a stark contrast indeed. The original drafters of the 1902 Reclamation Act, who wanted to populate the American West with small family farms, would not recognize it and would certainly not approve.

The entire series, complete with footnotes, is available here.

Lloyd G. Carter has been writing about California water issues for 40 years. His Web site is



  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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