In what is likely a sign of the times, farmers in Brawley are selling water for more than they can make growing a crop. Closer to home, the Modesto Irrigation District, amid the din of protesting farmers, is contemplating selling water to San Francisco, a city whose big thirst broke John Muir’s heart when it succeeded in damming (and damning) the Hetch Hetchy Valley.
The City of Patterson, which has been intent on claiming the title of “Fastest Growing” for years now, is trying to get annexed into the Turlock Irrigation District (TID). District officials fear Patterson will use annexation as justification for TID water. Patterson city officials deny any such thing, but given Patterson’s grandiose plans for growth and its ongoing quest for water sources other than its own groundwater, the denials are less than convincing.
Patterson officials have a nearby example of what happens when development proceeds without assured water supplies. Just west and up the hill sits Diablo Grande, once touted as the economic engine that would drive Stanislaus County and environs toward decades of prosperity. Today, Diablo Grande’s problems with water serve as an ongoing object lesson for those who take the precious liquid for granted.
The western land rush is long over, but the water rush is just beginning. And once reality hits the radar, the frenzy will make Black Friday at Macy’s look like a leisurely stroll. There never was enough water here in the arid west, but American ingenuity and public works projects created vast expanses of paradise where once were only deserts. Today, those in the know about water supplies speak of “paper water,” water that is committed but not available, or only available in wet years.
Advocates of unbridled growth have always counted on farm water to serve their housing tracts and malls. But ground water is becoming less and less reliable as a sustainable source. A depleted and increasingly polluted aquifer won’t serve the growth projections of our ambitious cities and towns. Subsidence and compaction have made reliance on ground water an ever more risky proposition for vast stretches of the Northern San Joaquin Valley. That leaves surface water, and the stuff is already bringing prices over a hundred fold those of ag water.
Free market absolutists are going to have a very hard time justifying water subsidies for agriculture when demand for other uses dictates prices wildly in excess of those sustainable for agriculture. Brawley farmers are already predicting the end of farming in their region if water sales for urban uses continue. As conversion of farmland to urban use continues, so will the demand for farm water increase. And city thirst is insatiable, as evidenced by San Francisco’s never-ending demand.
As we’ve noted here, city government is the key to managing or inducing growth, and thus far city governments throughout our region have been reluctant to plan for anything except exponential growth. They’ve resisted hard boundaries and in fact offered plans that consistently ignore farmland values, smart growth principles and resource realities. As water becomes ever more valuable for urban uses, expect the pressure on farmers to escalate. Lower value crops will no longer be a reasonable option, as is now the case in Brawley.
A storm is brewing on the water horizon and city officials everywhere have already decided to take cover under the umbrella of realtors and developers.