The Corner

Agrarian Ignorance

Apparently my column on Jerry Brown’s dilemma in California bothered some ill-informed posters — especially my lament about the cut-off of federal irrigation water on the west side of California’s Central Valley. Some commentators alleged that I, as a farmer, had a conflict of interest and was a recipient of federally subsidized water that has now been curtailed. 

Not true, of course —as anyone familiar with California knows, there is a difference between east-side local irrigation districts that draw from the Sierra and federally delivered water districts to the west that were created much later and whose water is pumped in canals from hundreds of miles to the north.

I own a small farm on California’s east side, near the Sierra, in the local Consolidated Irrigation District. The small local district was created by our ancestors in the 19th century, who built their own ditches and set up local taxation pools to buy rights to the nearby Kings River, which is part of the central Sierra watershed (my great-great-grandmother’s horse-drawn scraper — a “Fresno Scraper” — which was used to dig the Davis family’s few hundred feet of ditch allotment, is still in the barnyard). Our shared Sierra water usually runs only for a few weeks (two or three turns) in the summer, in some drought years not at all. It is gravity fed, no pumps, and no federal money — its maintenance is entirely locally funded through irrigation taxes per acre — and is used by tree and vine farmers as a supplement to pumping groundwater rather inexpensively from a low water table. 

In contrast, 40 miles to the west lie the vast federally irrigated districts in question, the ones now subject to devastating cut-offs. They have an entirely different history (they were largely brought into production only in the 1960s, during the Kennedy administration’s creation of the Central Valley Water Project), a vastly different hydrology (on the west side it is often 1,500 feet down to water), and a much different pattern of farming (far larger, mostly corporate, far fewer people, fewer towns, far more row crops). 

Bottom line: I have never received any federal subsidies, for either water or crops, and like many farmers on the east side, most certainly do support an end to all federal direct crop price supports. That said, I think, as I wrote, it is insane at times of high unemployment and sky-high food prices to idle a quarter-million acres of prime, productive west-side federally irrigated acreage (on dubious ecological grounds) that earn our insolvent state millions in revenue — especially given that these farmers were originally provided with contractual assurances of steady supplies of federal water and, unlike us (my water table is 45 feet), they cannot easily make up the absence of surface water by pumping, since it is too expensive to draw irrigation water, sometimes brackish, from hundreds of feet below.


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