By BETTINA BOXALL
October 21, 2014
The signs appear about 200 miles north of Los Angeles, tacked onto old farm wagons parked along quiet two-lane roads and bustling Interstate 5.
“Congress Created Dust Bowl.” “Stop the Politicians’ Water Crisis.” “No Water No Jobs.”
They dot the Westlands Water District like angry salutations, marking the territory of California’s most formidable water warrior. Their message is clear: Politicians and environmental laws are more to blame for Westlands’ dusty brown fields than the drought that has parched California for the last three years.
In truth, neither is to blame for Westlands’ woes so much as the simple fact that the nation’s largest irrigation district is in the wrong place.
In a state where three-quarters of the water use is by agriculture, powerful farm districts such as Westlands play an outsized role in the rough-and-tumble world of water politics.
Westlands and its wealthy farmers are exercising their considerable clout to maintain a flow of cheap water from the north despite a harsh truth. In all of California, there may be no worse place to practice the kind of industrial-scale irrigated agriculture that Westlands is famous for than the badly drained, salt-laden lands that make up roughly half the district.
Westlands has persevered for decades by battling other farmers for supplies, repeatedly suing the U.S. government and spending millions of dollars trying to roll back environmental restrictions on water deliveries — all while planting lucrative nut crops that can’t survive a season without water.
Now it is a driving force behind the most ambitious water project proposed in California in decades, the $25-billion plan to send Sacramento River supplies south to Westlands and elsewhere through two giant water tunnels burrowed under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
The water would help Westlands for a time. But the expensive tunnels would merely delay the inevitable: The more Westlands is irrigated, the more its land will be ruined.