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ON CALIFORNIA

Contemplating the 'Cadillac Subdivision'

September 10, 1997|PETER KING

SACRAMENTO — . . . Illegal subsidies enrich big farmers, whose excess production depresses crop prices nationwide and whose waste of cheap water creates an environmental calamity that could cost billions to solve.

--Marc Reisner in his 1986 book, "Cadillac Desert"

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In the good old days of California's water wars, there were farmers and there were environmentalists. The environmentalists detested the farmers for exploiting cheap, taxpayer-subsidized water. The farmers in turn hated the environmentalists for caring more about salmon, ducks and free-flowing rivers than they did about crops or, to be more specific, farmers.

Somewhere in the middle were the cities, allies to whichever side seemed most able to help them obtain water needed to grow more suburbs. Urban water districts never received a large slice of the water pie, but they didn't need much. Subdivisions, it turns out, are a hardy, drought-resistant organism, able to flourish almost anywhere.

And so over the hills--the Tehachapis to the south; Altamont Pass to the north--they have come, gobbling up Central Valley farmland at a pace that makes old-timers recall Los Angeles County's rapid transformation from agricultural juggernaut to big, bad metropolis. It is a trend that has the potential to rearrange the water war landscape.

Compared to an endless, paved landscape of so many Harvest Homes and Orchards Estates, cotton fields nourished with developed water might not seem such an evil option. "I'll take Westlands any day," said Marc Reisner, referring to the westside irrigation district his landmark book helped demonize, "over a district just filled with sprawl."

*

It was Tuesday, and Reisner had just hurled a new little bomb into the hydraulic conflict. He released a position paper titled, blandly enough, "Water Policy and Farmland Protection." In it, Reisner argues that California farmers must be persuaded to resist selling out to developers, and that enlightened water policy can provide an incentive: Farmers who promise to keep farming for, say, the next 40 years, in turn would be assured of a reliable supply of irrigation water, even in a drought.

That description, it should be noted, oversimplifies his position, and one truth of California water is that nothing is as simple as it seems. That said, what's most interesting about Reisner's "discussion paper," created in affiliation with the nonprofit American Farmland Trust, is not the specific program it proposes. Rather, it is who is making the case.

Reisner galloped into the water wars in 1986 with "Cadillac Desert," which outlined the long and often dirty history of water development in the West. In the dozen years since, the book has obtained almost biblical status among opponents of the big dam, big water, big farm brigade. And yet now, here was Reisner, sounding in his paper a little like every farmer ever interviewed in a valley coffee shop, proclaiming:

"California agriculture is certainly not without its environmental problems, but nearly any bird, mammal, amphibian or insect is apt to prefer a farmed field to a treeless new development or shopping mall."

And, "There will never be as many salmon or waterfowl as there were in 1850, but restoration efforts can increase their numbers substantially. Paved-over farmland is gone forever."

And, "An important reason why California has begun to rectify historic environmental harm is because agriculture is more sympathetic to environmental goals than it once was."

*

Reisner said he expects controversy. Already, he's been accused by some environmentalists of selling out. In turn, he chides them for becoming "hung up on fish," for blinding themselves to the benefits of agriculture over development. As he put it in his paper: "In a state headed for a population of 50 million and more, farms, though they aren't parks or wilderness, take on special importance as open space, as relief from sprawl."

Perhaps his most vulnerable point is the assertion that uncertain water supplies are what drives farmers to sell to subdividers. If this is true, the water bargains he proposes might make sense. A more plausible explanation, however, is that farmers sell when the offers become irresistible, when the price is right. The price is dictated by demand, and it seems more and more city people want to make the move over the hill.

They come for familiar reasons: safer neighborhoods, affordable homes, better schools and a whiff, however faint, of the agrarian life. That they arrive in numbers destined, sadly enough, to destroy what they seek is but one more California irony. And in California, as a writer named Reisner once put it in a book, "when the issue is water, the ironies seem to string out in seamless succession." Yes, they do.

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