A water war in Salinas

Water project divides Salinas Valley

The (Salinas) Californian. A freelanced story, Part of a package published Feb. 8, 2003 (filed 11/25/02).

The 2/8-9/03 Californian front page on which my story appeared, including the centerpiece graphic.

The 2/8-9/03 Californian front page on which my story appeared, including the centerpiece graphic.

CASTROVILLE —- As he rumbled his Chevy Suburban around newly plowed fields, Hugo Tottino reflected on how the farming life in the northern Salinas Valley had changed over the years.

“We used to spend the day out in the fields,” said Tottino, who has been growing artichokes and other crops around Castroville since the 1940s. “Now we have to go to all these meetings.”

Most of those meetings have been about water, the key commodity in the Salinas Valley. The water supply in the fertile farmlands John Steinbeck made famous is threatened by manmade pollution, the demands of development and an uncertain climate future.

But the most pressing threat to the fields Tottino has worked for more than five decades is saltwater getting into and spoiling underground reserves of fresh water. Monterey County is on the leading edge of a worldwide struggle against this “saltwater intrusion,” which farmers here first noticed in their wells in the 1940s.

The county’s water agency will ask voters to approve in January a nearly $20 million project they say will stop the spread of salty water underground. Proponents say the Salinas Valley needs the project to provide enough water for both its $2.5 billon agricultural industry and the water needs of the 400,000 people who live there. But experts in the region disagree over how much the project will help.

The latest in a long string of “water wars” in the West has pitted huge farming companies against the growing cities where many of their employees live. Farmers in the north valley oppose those in the south, and folks who live along the reservoirs in the hills of San Luis Obispo County disagree with all of them (see sidebar).

The Salinas Valley Water Project is designed to trap more water behind dams in the rainy winter months, then give that extra water to farms during the dry summer irrigation season. The agency hopes that the 9,700 acre-feet of water per year that planners expect to siphon from the Salinas River will replace water farmers near the coast would otherwise pump from the ground.

An acre-foot of water is the amount of water that would fill an acre of land with water one foot deep, or about 360,000 gallons.

If approved by voters in January, the $18.8 billion project would put two rubber dam-like structures at opposite ends of the Salinas River. At the Lake Nacimiento Dam just over the San Luis Obispo County line, an inflatable device would let the agency collect more rainwater in that reservoir during the rainy season for use later in the year.

The lake’s levels would swing from bigger than before to lower in the summer, when that extra water is released and sent downstream. Another inflatable dam near Castroville would divert that extra water to pipes irrigating farms.

A worker on Hugo Tottino's farm loads artichoke, Castroville, CA. Photo by Marton Dunai.

A worker loads boxes of artichokes at Hugo Tottino's Castroville farm. Photo by Marton Dunai.

But not everyone is going to get that surplus. Only farmers in the Castroville area are slated to receive the extra water collected in Lake Nacimiento over the winter. They are part of a network of 45 miles of pipes that brings water treated at the state’s largest wastewater treatment plant to 12,000 acres of Castroville farmland. Farmers like Hugo Tottini swear by this most ambitious effort to date to recycle wastewater for agricultural purposes.

“If it wasn’t for the project, we wouldn’t be farming here,” said Tottino, who sat on committees that formed the project. “I believe it saved our water.”

Agency planners said they chose to send the new water from Lake Nacimiento to Castroville farmers because they already have the pipes in place to receive it. They say that the water will do the most good near Castroville because it will replace what farmers there would otherwise have pumped from the ground.

“It’s a great project —- for them,” said Leo Havener, Jr., the water resources planner for the city of Salinas. “That’s why we support it —- for them. … Corporate farming interests are the sole beneficiaries of this project.”

“Corporate” is an accurate description of most of the farming that happens near Castroville. Tottino’s company, Ocean Mist, is the nation’s largest artichoke operation and employs more than 800 people besides the hundreds of farmworkers who harvest the crops. Ocean Mist cultivates more than 25 crops in Castroville and satellite farms in the Coachella Valley, Oxnard, Huron and Irvine, CA, and Yuma, Arizona.

This large-scale agriculture uses the lion’s share of the valley’s groundwater. Of the groundwater pumped between 1995 and 1998, 92 percent was pumped by farms and just 8 percent by cities or residential areas, according to the water agency’s data.

But farmers say they use the water wisely.

“We don’t waste water,” Tottino said. “We know what water means to us.” He pointed to rows and rows of artichokes planted above more-efficient pipes that drip water onto the plants. More and more fields are going to drip-irrigation, Tottino said, as farmers convert their land as their funds allow. “We spent a lot of money to go to drip, that’s more conservation.”

The exclusive supply of the newly collected water is one of the reasons Havener recommended to the Salinas City Council that they oppose the Salinas Valley Water Project.

The council went against his recommendation when they votes unanimously to support the project on Nov. 12. But they backed his concerns in a letter the city manager sent to the water agency, spelling out the conditions under which the city would support the project.

“My job was to tell the City Council ‘Are we going to benefit?’” said Havener, Salinas’ water resources planner. “When you look at all the science and the information from the Monterey County Water Resources Agency, it’s impossible to say, ‘Yes, you need to support this project.’ It doesn’t fit the criteria the city was looking for.”

Havener pointed a visitor to a map on his office wall that showed the location of wells in the north Salinas Valley. “The wells are clustered outside of the city limits,” he said. “There’s far more pumping going on around the city than inside the city.”

The county’s data shows that while farms used 2.71 acre-foot of water per acre from 1995 to 1998, Salinas used just 1.88 acre-foot per acre.

The California Water Education Foundation says an average California household used between 0.5 to 1 acre-foot of water each year. Cal Water Service, one of two water providers serving the city of Salinas, says its customers use between 0.10 and 0.35 acre-feet of water each year.

Havener said when farmers say the growing city of 150,000 is tapping water needed for agriculture, he tells them, “When you get your pumping rates down to ours, then we’ll talk.”

Havener also says the project won’t even stop saltwater intrusion over the long term. He says it can only work if the new water replaces what the farmers in the Castroville area pump through their unregulated, private wells —- something he considers unlikely.

Monterey County Water Resources Agency officials are more hopeful about the project’s impact. “The project is not going to reverse it (saltwater intrusion), but it’s going to stop it,” said Bob Meyer, the project’s assistant manager.

“It was never envisioned to stop the whole problem. We knew there wasn’t a sufficient water supply to do it all with reclaimed water. We knew we needed a follow-up project. This is that follow-up.”

Meyer and Alex Hulanicki, a Salinas-based public relations consultant working for the agency, said the project is only the first phase of a three-pronged plan to fix the region’s water supply. Later projects would build distribution systems to bring new surface water to the cities of Salinas and Marina.

Hulanicki said that future promise is why Salinas residents should vote to support the current project in January. “If this doesn’t pass, the needs of the urban areas won’t be able to be addressed,” he said. “They’ll be stuck in the mud, and that mud will be saline.”

Tottino said he hoped the inflatable dams included in the project would send more water down the river and increase the amount that percolates through the soil to recharge the underground reserves.

“We hope it comes down enough,” said the Ocean Mist partner. “It’ll give the water a chance to percolate. There’ll be more water for us, so I think it’ll help, yeah.”

“It’s going to cost us more in taxes, but we feel it’s worth it,” Tottino added.

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