Erosion, Development and Pollutants Threaten Soil

Associated Press

California's soils are being paved over, polluted with salts and toxic chemicals and eroded at a rate that threatens the future of the state's agriculture, a research group contends.

"Of the state's cropland, approximately 1,785,000 acres are shedding soil faster than nature can replace it, due to wind, water or both," according to a report by the American Farmland Trust called Eroding Choices, Emerging Issues. The state has 33 million acres in rangeland and farms.

Erosion in Kern County

Kern County offers one of the most dramatic examples of erosion in an agricultural area with 250,000 acres of cropland and 446,000 of grazing land whipped by wind erosion, the trust said. A 1977 windstorm near Bakersfield sandblasted crops and uncovered seed, causing $2.5 million in damage, the report added.

Loss of valuable topsoil can mean increased use of expensive soil conditioners and fertilizers that can also contaminate water supplies if the chemicals are used improperly, the report said.

High quality farmland is being paved over for shopping centers, housing subdivisions and other urban uses at the rate of 50,000 acres annually, according to a report by the state Conservation Department.

A sort of "domino effect" follows loss of prime farmland as farmers turn to lower-quality lands to raise crops, said the report, called Conserving the Wealth of the Land.

For example, some western Fresno County growers maintain that their drainage problems are aggravated by irrigation on fields above their properties. Disposal of drain water containing selenium and boron has led to wildlife deaths at Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge.

Salty drain water on 1.6 million acres--an area about the size of San Francisco, Santa Clara, San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties combined--poses potential disaster for croplands, the state report said.

The U.S. Soil Conservation Service estimates that 5 million acres--half of the state's irrigated croplands--could be hit with the saline soil problem by the year 2000.

The American Farmland Trust study offers this assessment of the future of California's soil:

"Unless (the problems) are addressed in a decade or two, California agriculture could find that farmland conversion, erosion, salinity and irrigation shortages are so severe that its production of crops will decline rather than advance; the enormous public investment in agriculture will have been squandered, and a host of related economic and environmental problems could follow in turn."

Programs Erode Too

Soil problems have coincided with an erosion of the state government's soil conservation programs. In 1978, the state Resource Conservation Commission, charged with a lead role in protection of California's soils, was disbanded after nearly a decade of budget cuts.

Staff at the Department of Soil Conservation, which peaked near 50 in 1967, has been cut to one full-time position.

"Presently, I'm it. There were once 50 people in the state working on what used to be considered a model program in the nation," Ken Trott said.

Other state agencies deal with soil erosion, but Trott said he is the only person in state government charged with coordinating the state's soil conservation effort.

State lawmakers and Gov. George Deukmejian are paying closer attention to this common denominator of California's phenomenal agricultural wealth.

Deukmejian signed a three-bill package in September that earmarked $240,000 to complete mapping of farmlands soils. This basic research is missing on one-third of the state's croplands, including the multimillion-dollar farms in Fresno, Kern, San Joaquin and Tulare counties, according to state records.

"It's time that California stopped treating its farmland like dirt," said state Sen. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove), sponsor of part of the package.

Funds for soils studies will originate from an increased fee on landowners who want to take their lands out of the state's agricultural preserve program, known as the Williamson Act.

The package also calls for formation of a new network among California's 122 local Resource Conservation Districts to carry out the goals of the newly adopted state soils report.

"This is probably one of the more important long-term aspects of the bill," said Jay Ziegler, a Garamendi aide.

The federal Soil Conservation Service already advises local districts on soils management plans. But the federal salinity and irrigation management programs will be shelved for the next three years as the Soil Conservation Service grapples with a new conservation program outlined in the 1985 federal Farm Bill, said Red Martin, a Fresno-based Soil Conservation Service official.

Will Shafroth, director of the American Farmland Trust, is optimistic that the legislation passed this year will put California on a course that will remedy these problems.

'Significant Contribution'

"This year, I think, we are seeing a fairly significant contribution being made" toward saving California's soils, he said.

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