March 11, 2014 at 10:11 am

Westlands – The Center of California’s Water Debate

Before California’s current drought kicked in, farmers were already being affected by a dry spell of a different kind – a regulatory drought caused by water rights laws. Under the current system – a mixture of riparian and appropriative rights – farmers live in a “first come, first serve” world. Those areas which were the last to develop into farmland are also the last to get enough water when levels are low. Those who hold water rights on land must also prove “beneficial use” for the water (in this case, that the land is being used for agriculture). Some have referred to this as the “use it, or lose it” rule.

(Westland Water District)

(Westland Water District)

The California Central Valley, being a naturally dry climate, is particularly affected by both drought and state water laws. The Westlands water district often sits at the center of water rights controversy. The area comprises about 600,000 acres and produces $1 billion dollars in agricultural goods each year. It’s also the largest irrigated region in the United States.

This same district is the subject of a short documentary produced by Doug Beach with work and photographs by his wife, photojournalist Randi Lynn Beach. Westlands, a water story is a seventeen minute film that brings farmers and academics together to talk about the trouble Central Valley agriculture is having with water rights. Issues like conservation that seem obvious to non-farmers among us are real problems for the people making a living in these districts – if desperately needed water is going to the conserve native fish species, it’s not getting onto the fields.

You can watch the full documentary below as well as our brief Q&A with Doug Beach about Westlands and the issues it raises. The following interview was edited for length and clarity. For more photos of the Westlands project, visit Randi Lynn Beach’s website.

Tove Danovich: What made you choose this subject?

Doug Beach: “My wife, Randi Lynn Beach, is the one who initiated the project. She’s a photojournalist. She’s been photographing farmers for 15 years or so for the LA Times and Associated Press. In the course of doing a story for the LA Times, she caught wind of this story. This was maybe 4 years ago. What she wanted to do was a kind of a photo show with a supporting video documentary – but then, of course, the video itself took on a life of its own.

The topic is so big and she tends to do this, take on these projects that can never end. The video became a little more robust than she initially intended because everybody wanted to talk about it. Central Valley farmers are not an easy group to get to open up – they can be a little suspicious – but they’re struggling so they really want their message out there.

The video right now is 17 minutes long on the web. We easily interviewed a dozen more people that didn’t make it into the shorter cut. We’re in the process of making a 28 minute version of it.

dead almond trees. Firebaugh, CA  (Randi Lynn Beach)

Dead Almond Trees. Firebaugh, CA
(Randi Lynn Beach)

TD: What in particular didn’t make it that you’re hoping to include in the next version?

DB: My wife initiated the project and I’m the one who shoots, edits, and tells the story – she’s mad at me about a few things I left out. We interviewed a couple farmers in Spanish and neither of our Spanish is really good. We’re working on getting that translated because it’s an important voice to include. One guy who is the lawyer from the Westlands water district told us,“Beware of where your food comes from. If it doesn’t come from a farm, it’s going to come from countries we don’t control.”

California’s current drought is shining a bit of a spotlight on Central Valley farmers, do you think that water rights issues will also get more attention as a result?

A couple years ago in 2009, it was really bad and that was when there was a federal case about water rights. Then we got some rain for a year or two and it fell off the radar. Now it’s back. Allocations from the State Water Project are about zero percent. Even farmers that have water rights aren’t getting the water they need. It’s going to become more important – it’s not an issue that’s going to go away.

TD: Is there a potential solution you’ve found in the process of talking to people for this documentary?

DB: Everybody has their ideas about potential solutions like tunnels that bypass the delta and conservation and all that thing. A lot of the farmers have already adopted better practices around conserving water and irrigation that’s not wasteful and they’re doing all they can. I think the problem really is that the infrastructure is so old and was built for a population that was one tenth of the size it is now. The problem has to be solved through major infrastructure changes.