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The sustainability of irrigated agriculture in many arid and semiarid areas of …

Biology Articles » Agriculture » Sustainability of irrigated agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley, California » Historical Context

Historical Context
- Sustainability of irrigated agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley, California

The study area represents a 1,400-km2 irrigated agricultural region in western Fresno County on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley (Fig. 1A) and includes three alluvial fans. The alluvial soils are derived from Coast Range alluvium and are generally fine-textured (Fig. 1B). Irrigation water is managed by water districts for water distribution and drainage management. Details on the hydrogeologic setting, soils, and history of irrigation are published elsewhere (6, 14, 15) and are summarized in Supporting Text and Fig. 5, which are published as supporting information on the PNAS web site. Early irrigation in the valley, starting at the end of the 19th century, was limited to gravity diversions from the San Joaquin River and developed into intense groundwater pumping starting in the 1920s, leading to an increase in irrigated acreage westwards and upslope. After completion of the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project in 1953 and 1967, respectively, the whole study area was irrigated with high-quality imported water from the Sacramento Valley conveyed by the Delta-Mendota Canal and the California Aqueduct. These projects initially resulted in soil leaching of predevelopment salts. However, increased deep percolation rates combined with a sharp decrease in groundwater pumping resulted in a rise of the water table over much of the area (16). Since the mid-1980s the extent of saline-sodic soils has steadily migrated to the west, generally following the expansion of the shallow water table area [K. Arroues (2002), personal communication, Natural Resources Control Service, Hanford, CA].

Figure 1Overview of the study area. (A) Location of the study area in the western San Joaquin Valley that includes 13 water districts (W.D.). (B) Soil texture map. (C) Soil gypsum contents. The main soil types are clay (52% of the study area), clay loam (35%), loam (4%), and sandy loam (9%). The finer-textured soils are found in the valley trough near the San Joaquin River. These soils have clay contents from 40% to 60%. The clay fraction is dominated by the montmorillonite mineral. Going from east to west, the soils gradually become more coarsely textured. A distinct feature is the sandy loam soils developed in stream deposits of Panoche Creek. Organic matter contents are low. Gypsum is predominantly present in the downslope soils. Soil data are from ref. 14.

The salinity problem on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley is partly attributed to the continuous presence of a low-permeability Corcoran clay layer (6), ranging in depths from ≈30 m near the San Joaquin River in the east to a depth of ≈250 m in the west, thereby largely defining the regional hydrology. To lower the water tables, subsurface drainage systems were installed to intercept and collect the shallow groundwater. Yet, soon thereafter it became eminently clear that drainage waters must be disposed off in an environmentally safe manner. Specifically, the 1983 discovery of migratory bird deaths and deformities was linked to elevated selenium levels in agricultural drainage water impounded in Kesterson Reservoir (17, 18). This finding led to an intensive investigation carried out jointly by federal and state agencies through the San Joaquin Valley Drainage Program (19). Current solutions include increasing irrigation efficiency, growing alternative salt-tolerant crops, drainage-water reuse, the collection of drainage water in evaporation ponds, land retirement, and increased groundwater pumping. However, for irrigated agriculture to remain sustainable, a soil salt balance must be maintained that allows for productive cropping systems.

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