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California’s Hydromania

Why exactly is farmland so insanely priced, when canal water is nonexistent and the water table is dropping several feet each month -- as tens of thousands of farmers tap their savings to deepen their wells to grab what they can of the shrinking aquifer?

The answer is complex. One, the growth of India, China, Southeast Asia and the Pacific as consumers of California specialty crops coincides with steady inflation here at home in the price of food. In such a perfect storm, farming has never been more lucrative. It is almost as if the more regulations, taxes, and rules that are put on farming, the more food becomes precious.

Prices to almond growers have reached $3 and more a pound. Some mature nut varieties  bring $8,000 to $10,000 in profits per acre. As farmers swarm to plant crops like almonds or pistachios, they abandon old marginally profitable produce like grapes and stone fruit -- and such reductions in those acreages have likewise revitalized the fresh and dried fruit markets. In a word, price-wise everything in California is now good, and water-wise everything is lousy -- with one weird caveat. Let me elaborate a bit more on the underground contours that frame the reaction to the drought.

The old hydrologists and geologists warned us that annual snowmelts run off the Sierra granite, on past the clay foothill soil, and seep into a huge sandy loam aquifer from about ten miles to forty miles distant. But quite precipitously that aquifer plunges as one heads each mile westward to the Coast Range, so much so that out by Highway 33 to I-5, it is not uncommon to hunt for brackish water at 1500 feet and more.

In other words, without the water projects’ deliveries of surface irrigation water from Northern California, the multibillion-dollar vast West Side -- excellent soils, brilliantly engineered canal systems, a font of agribusiness genius -- is threatened with abject extinction. I grew up hunting with my father out on the pre-water project “West Side.” shooting jack rabbits and ground squirrels among the parched salt flats, tumbleweeds, and brambles that offered marginal cattle raising lands at best.

If we cut the surface water to the West Side or simply don’t have it, the verdant bread basket of the nation returns to desert -- and with it are lost billions of dollars in export earnings, thousands of jobs, tens of billions in spin-off economic commerce, and assurances of affordable food, from cotton and lettuce to pistachios and tomatoes.

As millions of these acres remain threatened, a desperate agribusiness looks eastward, to the well-watered loams far closer to the Sierra. Here, in towns like Reedley, Selma, Fowler, Fresno and Madera, the aquifer is, for a while longer, close to the surface. It has been replenished by snow runoff for centuries, and canal water recharge ponds for over 100 years.