Retire Poisoned Lands

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Since the 1960s and 1970s, the State Water project and the federal Central Valley Project have supplied irrigation water to approximately 1.3 million acres of drainage-impaired lands on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley and the Tulare Lake Basin. 

These lands are heavily laden with selenium, an element that is exceedingly toxic at high concentrations.  Drainwater from the Valley’s seleniferous lands killed thousands of birds at the now-closed Kesterson Wildlife Refuge in the late 1970s and the 1980s, and it remains a chronic threat to public health, fisheries and wildlife.

The Pacific Institute has determined that retiring these impaired lands would save up to 3.9 million acre feet of water annually.  C-WIN supports this conclusion.  Land retirement of this scale would also greatly deduce selenium contamination in Central Valley waterways and the Bay-Delta estuary.

More on Poisoned Lands, Polluted Waters.


Unlike other programs promoted by western San Joaquin water contractors, land retirement is an effective means of dealing with toxic drainwater and waterlogged lands.  The Bureau of Reclamation’s Tranquility Land Retirement Demonstration Project significantly reduced high groundwater in the test area.  The Bureau of Reclamation’s 2001 Annual Report stated that groundwater elevations declined an average of four feet between august 1999 and October 2001.  Further, the report noted that the area affected by a shallow water table decreased from 600 acres (30 percent of the site) to 34 acres (less than two percent of the site) in the same time period. 

The BOR report and related studies point to a general conclusion:  commercial irrigation of the impaired lands of the western San Joaquin Valley imperil public and environmental health, and constitute a massive taxpayer and ratepayer subsidy of destructive and unsustainable corporate agriculture. 

Retiring these poisoned lands would greatly reduce the demand for Delta water and significantly improve the water quality of the San Joaquin River, the Delta and San Francisco Bay due to the reduction of selenium contamination and bio-accumulation.

C-WIN thus recommends the following:

- Legislators, regulators and the courts must be convinced that continued irrigation of these lands is not in the public interest.  The case that this practice is a wasteful and unreasonable use of water (as defined in the California Constitution, Article X, Section 2) and is thus an unacceptable rationale for water service contracts must be forcefully made. 

- Most of the drainage-impaired land in the western San Joaquin Valley and the Tulare Basin should be retired from irrigated agriculture, with the water obtained from the subsequent cancellation of water contracts used to sustain the Delta’s agriculture, fisheries and ecosystems.  Dryland farming could continue on the retired lands – the standard practice for the area before the delivery of government project water.  The retired tracts could also serve for large-scale photovoltaic solar arrays. 

- In the interests of economic equity and social justice, all land retirement programs should include programs for reducing job-loss impacts to farm workers and dependent communities.  This could include job-training and apprenticeships, particularly in the emerging green sector fields of alternative energy and sustainable water development and use.

It must be noted that these lands will go out of production even if irrigation continues.  Ultimately, they will become too waterlogged to allow profitable farming.  They will become sterile alkali plains, producing massive quantities of toxic dust and further degrading the already poor air quality of the San Joaquin Valley.  By then, it will be too late to mitigate either the environmental or economic damage of subsidized irrigation to this blighted and abused region.