Amid California's Drought, A Bruising Battle for Cheap Water

Agriculture in the Westlands Water District is a contentious issue. Farming in a desert and growing particularly water-intensive crops like almonds and pistachios requires pumping groundwater and taking water from less arid regions. Groundwater supplies can only go so far before the land subsides in a serious way, and what happens during a widespread drought when historically wet regions need all the water they produce? Lawsuits, multi-billion dollar water tunnel projects, potential harm to threatened species, and taxpayers paying for the wealthy to remain so. Read highlights below from Bettina Boxall’s article in the LA Times, or read the full article here. 


Westlands and its wealthy farmers are exercising their considerable clout to maintain a flow of cheap water from the north despite a harsh truth. In all of California, there may be no worse place to practice the kind of industrial-scale irrigated agriculture that Westlands is famous for than the badly drained, salt-laden lands that make up roughly half the district.

Westlands has persevered for decades by battling other farmers for supplies, repeatedly suing the U.S. government and spending millions of dollars trying to roll back environmental restrictions on water deliveries — all while planting lucrative nut crops that can’t survive a season without water.

Now it is a driving force behind the most ambitious water project proposed in California in decades, the $25-billion plan to send Sacramento River supplies south to Westlands and elsewhere through two giant water tunnels burrowed under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The water would help Westlands for a time. But the expensive tunnels would merely delay the inevitable: The more Westlands is irrigated, the more its land will be ruined.

A half-century ago, boosters predicted that thousands of small family farms would blossom with the arrival of federal water. That vision never materialized. The few scruffy little towns within Westlands’ borders struggle with chronically high unemployment and poverty.

Large tracts were broken up to meet federal acreage limits on the delivery of taxpayer-subsidized water, but the cropland was often spread among extended family members and their trusts. Though Westlands at various times has said it serves 600 or 700 farms, University of California researchers in 2011 found that there were 350 farm networks “grouped by common ownership.

In what critics complain is the latest example of the district’s political influence, the Reclamation Bureau is proposing to let Westlands off the hook for $360 million it still owes U.S. taxpayers for construction of its portion of the Central Valley Project. The move would be part of a deal to resolve a lingering legal fight over the broad swath of the district that is badly drained and laced with salts.

Growers served by Westlands boast that they have adjusted to shrinking supplies by adopting highly efficient irrigation practices. But they are also planting more profitable, permanent crops, leaving farms increasingly vulnerable to water shortages. District records show that the amount of almond and pistachio acreage has jumped sevenfold in the last two decades.