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We Will Reap What We Sow in the Central Valley

November 30, 2003|Gerald W. Haslam | Gerald W. Haslam is the author of several books about the Central Valley, among them "The Other California" (University of Nevada, 1994).

Twenty years ago, the vaquero writer Arnold Rojas, who had lived in the Bakersfield area for nearly 80 years, said, "Some day we will have to tear up these malls and plant something to eat." It seemed funny at the time.

Today, though, that vast trough we call the Great Central Valley -- the richest agricultural region in the world -- truly is threatened by short-term economics and planning. Its population is swelling and real-estate developers are pocketing big bucks. But the region's infrastructure is strained, and some of the most productive agricultural land is being covered with houses and malls.

This is happening all over California, but given past mistakes and the importance of agriculture, we should know better in the Central Valley.

During the last decade, more than 200,000 acres of prime farmland in the Central Valley have been lost to development. Pro-growth advocates point out that nearly 300,000 "productive acres" have been added in that period. So what's the problem?

First, not even ingenious Americans have figured out how to invent acreage. That so-called new land is marginal for agriculture and was previously being used for things like grazing, or it wasn't being used by humans at all. Now it has been vivified by irrigation, by chemicals and perhaps by leveling so it can grow crops.

That fits the historical pattern in this state: pave superior farmland, then convert less fertile tracts to agricultural use, usually requiring more acreage and more aggressive technology. The erstwhile citrus groves of Orange County or the forgotten orchards of Silicon Valley, for instance, were paved, and their loss led to chemically augmented farming in places like Kern and Tulare counties.

Today the Central Valley is absorbing the state's fastest population growth; more than 6 million live there now, with more than 12 million considered possible by 2050. New residents will come, but where will they live?

Like the native cultures our ancestors overwhelmed, we have built communities on the rich alluvial soil deposited by streams, the earth most productive for agriculture. Beneath that topsoil is an ancient seabed on the Central Valley's west side. Irrigating there a few years ago leached seabed selenium into Kesterson Drain, killing birds. In fact, the only thing dumber than irrigating soil on the west side may be to build houses on east-side flood plains. We do both because there is no effective regional planning.

No one argues seriously that there won't be new houses in the Central Valley, but why not build them on the marginal (and abundant) west-side acreage that is less suitable for intensive farming and less susceptible to intensive flooding? Why not, at first at least, infill existing towns and not build on open land at all?

There are many reasons why we don't do that, most revolving around greed and convenience. Blame too the American assumption that land is owned rather than held in trust for future generations, mated with the notion that you should be able to do anything you want with your property, no matter what the long-term consequences to the commonweal. Regional prejudice lingers in this state too: Hey, it's only the Central Valley.... Who cares? Yet the gradual paving of an area that produces 25% of all the food eaten in the United States may well lead to reliance on provisions from distant locales where environmental and health guidelines are lax.

Californians won't allow people to build randomly on our magnificent coast, but we apparently consider the Great Central Valley's cornucopia expendable. Perhaps because it isn't pretty, even though its annual production of crops and petroleum (it produces more than 80% of the state's oil and gas) is worth more than all the gold mined in the history of the Golden State.

Some hate the notion of regional planning, but it works. We have a commission to protect our remarkable coast, so why not consider a similar body to direct regional development in the state's agricultural heartland before it is lost, one parcel at a time?

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