Report Fuels the Water Wars

Richard Cano/

Claims that EPA environmental restrictions have caused more fallow land and the loss of jobs in the San Joaquin Valley have been watered down by a new study.

The most recent drought hit California through 2007 to 2009, and was a mild one. The Pacific Institute based in Oakland reports that less than a quarter of water delivery cutbacks to the Valley, primarily to agricultural users in 2009 stemmed from environmental restrictions. The California Water Resources agency denies that.

Instead of  huge losses, the Central Valley’s farmers enjoyed record sales during the water shortage and jobs related to farming in California remained stable.  Average farming revenues during the drought went up 28% in Kern County compared to 2000, but citrus growers suffered,

It helped that produce prices stayed steady or improved.  Measures such as depleting local groundwater banks, temporary water transfers and fallowing farmland, worked well in the short term. But what if the near-record snowpack in the Sierra and generous rainfall hadn’t happened? And will it happen again?

It really helps to have a villain. Of course, all the sectors of the economy take strong views.  And so do environmentalists. We’re talking jobs, productive farmland, family businesses, poor people being forced to buy bottled water, dessication. These are pocketbook issues.

Environmentalists are hated with a visceral passion and their opponents claim 35K-50K thousand people were put out of work in recent years. The report shows otherwise. Environmentalists contend that some of the 450,00 acres left fallow in the west valley are partially due to toxins in the soil where nothing would grow anyway.

In the farmer’s view, it’s the draconian measures taken to save the Delta Smelt. Not an attempt to save the entire Delta ecosystem. Water users in Northern California believe Southern California is staging a water grab.

And what about the next drought? Water falls, water flows according to cycles that have not yet been decoded. Nobody knows what’s normal any more. Some say that a technological improvement in the water delivery systems will save us–at enormous expense. Will all the potential gains be wiped out then by the impact of climate change?

One hundred years ago little towns in the Valley settled around lush natural water sources. Then the rivers were dammed. Now it’s an unnatural $20b irrigated empire. The Valley’s explosive growth has caused rivers to run dry, dead fish to clog up the water pumps, and contribute to aquifers that are increasingly polluted–and made a lot of money for the fortunate.

I was warned about trying to write about California’s byzantine water politics. Now I’ve waded in, the huge whirling system of blame has come to fascinate me.  More to come …

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