Biotech Healing in San Joaquin Valley
Much has been made of the San Joaquin Valley's water problems. Too many farms did not get the water they needed, which destroyed their owners' and workers' livelihoods. Of course, there is plenty of water underground; the problem is that it has been poisoned with toxins such as selenium, boron, and other mineral salts. Much of this farmland, centered in west Fresno County has been lost because of the contamination, but there could be a clean tech solution on the way.
A Fresno County farmer, John Diener, and a Colorado biotech firm, New Sky Energy, are partnering in finding a solution that solves a few problems: providing fresh water for irrigation, removing this toxic water, and providing revenue that can offset the price of desalinisation, which still is too pricey and energy intensive to implement on a wide scale.
New Sky's technology will allow about 200 gallons a minute to be cleaned and filtered. Several tons of salts are expected to be removed from the water, which Diener in turn can turn around and sell to companies that can process it for plastics and other industrial uses. The federal government estimates that to clean up all this contaminated land will cost about $2.7 billion. New Sky's process will cost about $2500 per acre-foot (about 326,000 gallons) of water; with the sale of these removed chemicals, the cost could dip to about $300 an acre-foot.
Will this work? Even Mr. Diener is not entirely sure. Desalinisation schemes have been tried in the past, only to have failed. I have seen comments stating that this is just another wasteful government scheme. Environmentalists pooh-pooh this as not going far enough? Is this a huge project? No? Should it be pursued? Absolutely.
We can slam the San Joaquin Valley all we want for the environmental degradation that has occurred over the past couple generations. Of course, the same people that often sneer at our valley cousins are also the same ones who coo and gush over the organic produce in Santa Cruz and Santa Monica . . . which often comes from . . . Fresno. Viewing these farms as just one big polluting agribusiness monstrosity is short-sighted; there are many family-owned farms here that grow spectacular crops. And finally, I don't see an alternative. Should we just throw up our hands and have our produce come from Mexico, where we have absolutely no oversight, while using more and more fuel that would be required to ship all these crops from south of the border?
To those that just see New Sky's work as big government, my suggestion would be to talk to farmers like John Diener. He has worked on water issues for years, and has served on the board of the Westlands Farm District. Desalinisation and other clean tech processes are becoming more cost-effective, necessary for them to gain wider traction. If this project succeeds, more farmers will be interested, and more people will win. People always listen to their peers. And hopefully, more people will be employed.
The best way to solve problems like this water contamination issue is to engage farmers like Diener, and offer them a solution. With the water shortages confronting California, ideas like New Sky's have got to be considered and researched. Less sanctimonious banter on one side, and a receptive mind to new ideas on the other, will help heal this region that is so important to California's economy and way of life.