The pipes extend in all directions from their exoskeleton pumping arrays, each one entering the ground like the alien proboscis of an off-world insect. Some of the arrays have as many as seven or eight 300 horsepower pumps, each one capable of lifting thousands of gallons of water a minute.
These powerful pumping systems are the signature apparatus of the industrial almond orchard, a favored investment of speculators looking for, “hard assets with outstanding market value and stellar outlook,” according to Trinitas Partners, a Bay Area investment group. In Stanislaus County, Trinitas Partners has exemplified the new investor/mega-farmer and driven many members of this ordinarily pro-farming community into spirited opposition to an ever-expanding forest of nut-bearing trees.
Mostly within the last decade, some 40,000 acres of rolling rangeland in the eastern part of the county have been converted to almond forests, and within a few short years, Trinitas has become the eastern county’s largest landowner, with over 7200 acres of trees.
At first, Trinitas depended solely on groundwater for its orchards. In 2013, however, Trinitas was annexed into the Oakdale Irrigation District (OID) under conditions that have since caused a firestorm of criticism and concern.
Local farmers claim Trinitas was supposed to be a “second tier” recipient of OID surface water. They say senior members of the district were promised Trinitas would receive water only after they had received their full allocations. When OID cut allocations earlier this year and then said Trinitas would receive water anyway, many farmers joined in formal protest of the move.
Led by rice farmer Bob Frobose, the protestors claim OID lied publicly about its deal with Trinitas. The outcry has come at a time when other residents of the region have formed a growing chorus of complaints about failing wells, crowded roads from Trinitas truck traffic, drifting dust and pesticides, and noise from pumping that never seems to cease.
Ironically, when Trinitas was brought into the district, OID management wrote the following:
“The District has fully considered all potential environmental impacts of the proposed annexation and this agreement and has concluded that no such impacts will occur. The District therefore adopted a Negative Declaration under the California Environmental Quality Act on December 11, 2012 relating to the proposed annexation and this Agreement.”
The Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo), chaired by the Oakdale area’s County Supervisor Bill O’Brien, supported the Negative Declaration.
Though it’s patently absurd to conclude there are no impacts from replacing rangeland with orchards, California law has failed to address such impacts when they result from agricultural use.
In retrospect, the fundamental problem with Trinitas and other farming operations is the lack of state foresight about water for agriculture. Today, farmers continue to plant new orchards even as the drought intensifies. There is simply no oversight, state or federal, on placing unsustainable demands on the state’s water supply when it’s tapped by farmers.* This is not the case with urban developers.
Since 2001, California has required developers of housing tracts with 500 or more units to show sustainable water sources before building. No such restriction applies to farming. The tens of thousands of acres of rangeland converted to forest in Stanislaus County are a tiny fraction of the transformation of the land throughout the San Joaquin Valley. In many cases, the likelihood that such farming is sustainable is negligible―the clear motive for planting is short-term profit.
The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) has several goals. Among the most important is a requirement to, “Prevent or minimize damage to the environment through development of project alternatives, mitigation measures, and mitigation monitoring.”
Large farming operations like those of Trinitas Partners have huge environmental impacts, yet they are routinely permitted to ignore such impacts because they bear the protective aura of “agriculture.” Many of those impacts could be minimized and mitigated with better regulation of water, which is why CEQA needs to be applied to water use in general, not just the water used by urban developers. Negative Declarations should not be an option.
Industrial agriculture’s environmental impacts can’t be ignored. In a world of diminishing water resources, nothing should be exempt from the sustainability requirement. Farming for short-term profits at the expense of public resources is clear abuse of the Public Trust.
*Recently, the state has required regions throughout the state to achieve groundwater sustainability by 2040. How such sustainability would interact with surface water supplies remains vague.