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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

Making the desert bloom can have a high ecological cost. Steve Curwood spoke with John Else, executive producer of the PBS series about the California Central Valley's giant water project, which is airing on PBS television stations this month.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

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REISNER: When you drive down Interstate 5 between San Francisco and Los Angeles, you see cotton fields, miles and miles of cotton fields. And you see row crops and you see orchards. And you think oh, there's some cotton, there's some orchards, there's some row crops. This just wouldn't have been possible within the pre-existing natural order. The water is coming from hundreds of miles away, through concrete rivers. You know, it just couldn't have happened without these fantastic water works that we built, which are all but invisible. Somewhere off in the distance is a huge aqueduct carrying water that sustains all of this. But if it, somehow the water stopped flowing, you'd have a desert again overnight.

CURWOOD: That was a clip from Cadillac Desert, a 4-part TV series about water in the west, based on the book by Mark Reisner. John Else is the producer and he joins us now on the line from San Francisco. Hello, sir.

ELSE: Hello.

CURWOOD: Now, much of the nation's food is grown in California's Central Valley. But as we just heard Mark Reisner tell us, the area is actually a desert. Now why did people start farming there in the first place if it's so barren?

ELSE: Well, people first tried to farm without irrigation, and they quickly found that there was a limit to how much they could grow. And it was not very long before people looked to the east and saw the Sierra Nevada with the deepest snow packs in the world, and realized that this deep, deep, rich soil they were standing on, if it could simply be watered with imported snow melt, you know, the desert would bloom. There would be fantastic bounty. The Federal Government got involved because of a law that few Americans had ever heard of. It's the Reclamation Act of 1902. And the Reclamation Act said we will build great dams and canals and the point of building these is to bring thousands of small farmers onto this arid land in the west. Well, it sounded good in principle, but what in fact happened was that in many cases the recipients of that water were not the small 160-acre farms. They were giant farms, farms of 50,000 acres or 100,000 acres, owned by people like the Southern Pacific Railroad.

CURWOOD: And this water came to them at a price of what? A tenth, a twentieth of what it cost the government to bring it to them.

ELSE: Yeah. Yeah, this was highly, highly subsidized water that they got for decades. You and I paid for it. You and I benefitted from it. That area grows about a quarter of the nation's food. But there were tradeoffs that were made. We as a nation and the Congress decided that we would let the large growers slip by. We decided that we would not look at the environment as all this was happening. (Laughs) You know, we chose cotton underwear over salmon, frankly.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering if you could describe for us how the water gets from the Sierra Nevada down into the Central Valley project, the aqueduct system for people who perhaps have never seen these.

ELSE: Sure. If you fly over California, you can look down from the window of your plane, and you can see the aqueducts. Now, the aqueducts often pass dry riverbeds, that's how you have an aqueduct and a river lying side by side with water flowing in one and not in the other. There are a series of dams throughout the Sierras. There is one dam that is nearly as tall as the Eiffel Tower. And they are magnificent engineering structures. Mark Reisner calls them giant thumbnails of concrete plugging the rivers and holding back, in some cases, several years of the river's flow. It's a giant, giant, giant system of plumbing.

CURWOOD: There's just one hitch with this plumbing system. It needs a supply, and what happens when the snow pack is weak? What happens when you have a drought?

ELSE: Those of us who live in the arid west I think forget how fragile this system is. If we have an extended drought, as we had in the mid-70s, or if you have a drought that can last 30 or 40 or 100 years, or 200 years, as has happened in the last couple of thousand years -- I mean, it is a part of the normal course of events to have very, very long, extended droughts in the western United States --

CURWOOD: You're scaring, you're scaring our California listeners right now.

ELSE: Well, I think our California listeners should be scared. Because we have built our civilization on a very slender thread. We have in all the reservoirs in the western United States about a 4-year reserve supply of water. And if that's gone, it's gone, and we simply cannot support the agriculture and the urban populations that are in the western United States without this system of water works. You know, these water works are also in California vulnerable to earthquake. And if there is a major earthquake that cuts off the California state aqueduct system, we have the potential for serious problems.

CURWOOD: In the 1970s President Jimmy Carter decided he should recommend cutting the funding from a long list of water projects. Carter's challenge was really the beginning of the end, wasn't it?

ELSE: Well, it was the beginning of the end of building big dams in America. Carter blew the whistle on dam building at the right time, at a time when people were beginning to notice that we have very, very few rivers left. People were beginning to notice that the costs of these projects were astronomical, and at a time when Federal budgets began to shrink. I mean, we just simply cannot afford to build these dams now. There is not the political will to spend the money on them. So Carter himself was sort of martyred by trying to stop all these projects. But the legacy of that is that in fact there have been no major authorizations for major new dams in the west since then.

CURWOOD: You get to the end of your program, and it's actually pretty optimistic. You talk about how farmers in the Central Valley are now among the most efficient water users in the country. But what about the salinity? Each year that you irrigate this soil and you add water, but you don't have the natural flooding system. You're adding poisons to your soil. Sooner or later you can't farm it any more.

ELSE: Yeah. I mean, there is -- there is a Sword of Damocles hanging over all irrigated farming in the western United States, and that is the accumulation of salts in the earth, both by fertilizer and pesticide, but largely simply the leaching of natural salts in the earth up into the root zones of the plants. Now, there are many people who argue that salting of the soil was in fact what brought down the civilizations, the irrigated civilizations of Mesopotamia and even Egypt, and we may be headed that direction all over the western United States. No one that I know of has come up with a solution for that, and it's quite -- you know, you can drive through the Central Valley of California and you can see areas along Interstate 5 where the ground in fact is white with salt. We have had to close some game refuges that took irrigation water because of tremendous toxicity, particularly from selenium that accumulated in the waters. At least now we're aware of these problems. I mean, the thing that astonished me doing this film series was to look back to the 1960s and 1970s and see that when these great projects were being built, people either did not notice the consequences to nature, or those consequences were predicted and everyone decided that was a legitimate tradeoff. That has now changed, and at least we are aware that there are problems, and at least people are trying to solve them. That's a big change.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us. John Else is a producer of Cadillac Desert, a 4-part series on water in the west. It will air over the Public Broadcasting System starting on June 24th. Thank you.

ELSE: Thank you.



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