More water will not bring salt-impaired land in the San Joaquin Valley back into production

President Trump is going to visit the San Joaquin Valley this week, and is likely to announce approval of plans to dramatically increase federal exports of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the San Joaquin Valley.  Experts have predicted that the increased Delta pumping will have catastrophic impacts on endangered fish in the Delta and migrating salmon, as well as worsening Delta water quality.

While the gutting of Endangered Species Act restrictions on Delta pumping will increase profits of industrial growers on the West side of the San Joaquin Valley, it is not likely to help impoverished local communities such as Huron and Mendota, which have been impacted by large scale land fallowing due to soil and groundwater salinization.

About a third of the irrigated land in the San Joaquin Valley has naturally occurring salts, and was reclaimed by dumping tons of gypsum onto it and flooding it with water.  The gypsum reacts with the salt to create sodium bicarbonate, which is then washed down into the groundwater.  Since west side soils are underlain by a clay layer, unless the soil is drained, the groundwater eventually percolates back up into the root zone, and the land loses productivity.  Sometimes salt even appears on the soil as a white crust.

Salt Crust Tulare Lake Basin

Land with salt crust, Tulare Lake region     California Water Research

The soils are further impaired by the presence of boron, a naturally occurring trace mineral.  Another trace mineral, selenium, is toxic to fish and wildlife. The federal government paid to retire 37,100 acres of land in Westlands in 2002, due to high concentrations of selenium in the soil.

But the Valley has hundreds of thousands more acres of marginal land that is likely unprofitable to farm.  Remote sensing data shows 519,000 acres of land on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley and in the Tulare Lake region that is strongly or extremely impaired by salinity.  Another 436,000 acres of land is moderately impaired by salinity and could go out of production over the next 20 years.


Salinity on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley        Scudiero et al.

Growers have been fallowing salt-impaired land and reallocating surface water supplies to permanent crops on better land.  Westlands Water District’s 2017 Water Management Plan Update shows a loss of 174,602 acres from irrigated production since 1985.  On page 35, it shows 143,820 acres exempt Agricultural Best Management Plans (BMPs) because the land has been converted to non-irrigated uses, including dry farming, grazing, and solar power.

Westlands 2017 BMPs

Local communities have been left to deal with blowing dust and the loss of local jobs.  The town of Huron is an example.  Two of five residents live in poverty.  “Agua es vida,” they have been told by the growers.  “Water is life.”  But the simple fact is that there is currently no financially viable way to bring the salt-impaired lands back into production.   And many farmworker jobs are also being lost to mechanization.

Westlands fallowed

Fallowed land, Westlands Water District       California Water Research

Huron’s Mayor, Rey Leon, sees the future of Huron in Westlands’ planned 20,000 acre solar farm and the Valley’s growing renewable energy industry. The UC Berkeley Labor Center reported that construction of Renewable Energy Portfolio projects created 88,000 jobs in the San Joaquin Valley between 2002 and 2015.  Energy efficiency projects created another 17,400 jobs. A 2017 study found that entry level jobs on 27 solar projects in Kern County were largely filled by workers from disadvantaged communities. Of 1,862 entry-level workers, 43 percent lived in disadvantaged communities, and 47 percent lived in communities with unemployment rates of at least 13 percent.

Westlands solar park

Westlands Solar Park        Sierra2theSea

Leon’s February 14, 2020 Editorial in the Fresno Bee stated,

“We can save our Valley communities and create a better world for future generations… We need more rooftop solar and battery storage at our homes. We need electric cars and buses with solar-powered charging stations in our neighborhoods. And we need new solar and wind farms combined with large-scale energy storage to ensure that clean energy is always available.

[…] These projects can be paired with substantive community benefits for equity in opportunities, including student scholarships, skills upgrading and employment. This approach will allow us to transition away from polluting fossil fuels once and for all while we uplift our community and quality of life.

It seems clear that the future of Huron and other west side San Joaquin Valley communities lies in a transition to a sustainable economy with good jobs, not in unsustainable industrial agriculture.

This post was updated to add a map of Westlands’ solar park.



2 thoughts on “More water will not bring salt-impaired land in the San Joaquin Valley back into production

  1. Good analysis and commentary here by California Water Research. Perhaps this piece could be submitted as an op-ed to the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valley newspapers. It deserves a wide audience.

  2. Years ago as part of the Valley Water District board I toured Westlands property and told the GM that converting selenium-contaminated land to solar was an opportunity to work with environmentalists instead of against them. I’m glad to see it happen!

    One caution on interpreting the jobs figure though – construction jobs are temporary, so the figures given are cumulative totals, they’re not permanent employment. Large-scale solar unfortunately doesn’t provide a lot of long-term employment, although that also helps keep the price low.

    Great post, as always!

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