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USDA Data Dispels Myth that California's West Side Growers 'Feed the Nation'

An "Astroturf" agribusiness group has relentlessly promoted the myth that crops grown on drainage-impaired land on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley "feed the nation."

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The Cretaceous sedimentary rock shales that underlie Westlands Water District contain salts and trace elements like selenium, arsenic, boron and heavy metals, according to Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. Several layers of virtually impermeable clay lie below the shales. 

"Irrigation of these soils has led to high concentrations of these pollutants draining via surface and subsurface flow to the San Joaquin River," said Jennings. "Efforts to control these toxics led to the creation of Kesterson Reservoir and the disaster where selenium poisoning led to thousands of deformed birds. Kesterson Reservoir was ordered closed by the State Water Board in 1985, but drainage from Westlands continues to discharge to the San Joaquin River at levels that are highly toxic to fish." 

Here's the point, according to Carter. "We all keep hearing about how Westlands 'feeds the nation' or even more preposterously, 'feeds the world.' They continually conflate themselves with the entire San Joaquin Valley or the entire state of California, which even then (at about $34 billion) is still less than 10 percent of national gross agricultural output." 

Carter and other environmental water justice advocates are wondering why Leslie Stahl of CBS' 60 Minutes didn't examine this angle when she covered California water politics in her poorly-researched report on Sunday, December 26. 

When you consider Carter's estimates that Westlands' contribution in gross income to the nation's food supply (and exports) is about a quarter of a percent - and that the true net value may be only $30 million to $40 million, once government subsides are considered - the claims by corporate agribusiness and media pundits that drainage impaired land on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley "feeds the nation" are simply not true. 

The false claim that any cuts to water supplies for west side San Joaquin Valley agribusiness will prevent them from "feeding the nation" has been cited by corporate agribusiness, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Senator Dianne Feinstein as a key reason for the "necessity" to build the peripheral canal on the California Delta and Temperance Flat and Sites reservoirs. This myth has also been employed by Schwarzenegger, Feinstein and Central Valley Representatives to launch their administrative and legislative attacks on the the federal biological opinions protecting Delta smelt, Sacramento River chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, green sturgeon and southern resident killer whales under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). 

The absurdity of the campaign to build more dams and the peripheral canal, a project estimated to cost anywhere from $23 to $53.8 billion, and to strip ESA protections for Central Valley salmon and other species becomes very apparent, now that a review of the USDA data has dispelled the myth that drainage impaired land, irrigated by subsidized water, "feeds America." 

To find more information about Westlands Water District, read Lloyd Carter's Golden Gate University Law Review article, "Reaping Riches in a Wretched Region: Subsidized Industrial Farming and its Link to Perpetual Poverty" [PDF]. 

 
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