photo: Todd Woody
In a followup to my story in Wednesday’s New York Times about recycling farmland and toxic waste sites for renewable energy projects, I take a deeper dive into why some farmers in the California’s San Joaquin Valley want to stop raising crops and start growing electrons:
In an article in The New York Times on Wednesday, I wrote about an ambitious plan to build one of the world’s largest solar energy complexes on 30,000 acres of farmland in the San Joaquin Valley of California.
Elsewhere, big renewable energy projects have encountered opposition from farmers, ranchers and environmentalists who worry about the impact of solar power plants on agriculture, wildlife and scarce water supplies.
But farmers in the San Joaquin Valley’s Westlands Water District are embracing solar power as a solution to their water woes. And environmental groups are backing the project as a way to avoid fights over building solar power plants in pristine desert areas.
In the 1960s, the west side of the San Joaquin Valley was transformed from a desert to one of the nation’s most productive agricultural centers thanks to a huge irrigation project that transports water from Northern California and distributes it to 600,000 acres of farmland through 1,034 miles of underground pipes.
Decades of irrigation and drainage problems led to a buildup of salt in the soil that forced the water district to spend $100 million to acquire and retire 100,000 acres of land from most agricultural production. Drought and environmental disputes over the impact of water diversions on endangered fish, meanwhile, slashed water deliveries to Westlands farmers.
The water district hopes to make money off salt-contaminated land by providing an initial 12,000 acres to Westside Holdings, a firm that has proposed building a 5,000-megawatt photovoltaic power complex called the Westlands Solar Park.
And farmers like Mark Shannon have agreed to lease their parched land to Westside, reluctantly concluding there’s more money to be made by growing electrons than crops.
“Last year, we received only 10 percent of our water supply and we idled 85 percent of this ranch,” said Mr. Shannon of the 5,300-acre property that his family has farmed for three generations. “My dad is 67 and I can’t believe how many times I’ve called him and he’s in tears — he just always figured he’d pass this land on to me.”
Mr. Shannon took me up in a small plane for a bird’s-eye view of the impact of the water crisis on his land, where brown fields surround green patches of almonds and pistachios. Beyond his farm are dry lands that stretch to the horizon, property owned by the Westlands Water District and taken out of irrigated production.
“Last year, we had over 250,000 acres in the district that didn’t get farmed,” said Sarah Woolf, a Westlands spokeswoman. “Then you have drainage issues coupled with the long-term reliability of the water supply.”
Desperate farmers have been spending millions of dollars drilling hundreds of deep groundwater wells, which in turn has caused subsidence problems.
In other parts of California, the prospect of covering square miles of farmland with solar panels has stirred outrage among some rural residents. But Mr. Shannon and Westlands officials don’t expect any significant opposition in the San Joaquin Valley.
The reason: if farmers such convert their land to solar farms, their water allocations will be redistributed to their neighbors.
You can read the rest of the story here.