One State, Under Water


After a particularly soppy winter refilled California’s gasping reservoirs and swelled the Sierra Nevada snowpack—to 175 percent above its historical average, in some spots—grateful residents hailed the end of a dry spell that stretched back six years. Governor Jerry Brown has declared that the state’s drought is mostly over, though he cautions that “conservation must remain a way of life.”

But for the farmers of the San Joaquin Valley, which covers roughly 400 miles from north to south and averages about 50 miles in width, water poverty continues—and in their case, the drought is mostly man-made. While the rain and snow have eased general water-use rules in place during the drought, California farmers continue to operate under strict environmental-regulatory constraints that have left this land parched.

For example, fresh water needed by farmers will still be diverted into the San Francisco Bay—1.4 trillion gallons from 2008 through last spring—to protect the Delta smelt, a three-inch baitfish that has landed on the Endangered Species List and now gets preferential political treatment over farmers. The smelt’s defenders fear that the pumps that move critical water supplies to farmers could harm its chances for survival. So the fresh water is dumped into the ocean instead. To no avail, as it turns out: Jason Peltier, deputy general manager of the Central Valley’s Westlands Water District, told National Geographic that a survey that netted only six delta smelt is “further proof that redirecting water from human use to environmental use in the name of helping the fish is not working.”

It’s possible that as much as half of the water that is impounded in the state’s systems of dams and reservoirs and flows through its network of aqueducts, canals, and pipelines gets diverted for an environmental agenda. Smelt protection is a federal policy. But California has the largest representation in Washington of any state. Why couldn’t this politically powerful delegation apply pressure in the right places to fix the problem? Maybe because most of California’s Senate and House members side with the environmental agenda over human needs.

State regulations also hold back the extraction of water, including a “groundwater sustainability plan” that when fully implemented will limit the volume of underground water that farmers can pump. Historically, landowners have had the right to determine how much water they pull out of the ground.

The state has also failed to address its glaring shortage of water infrastructure. California’s aqueducts and storage facilities simply cannot handle the volume of water needed to keep the Golden State sated over the long term. The California Farm Water Coalition says the state has a “broken water system” that creates “the risk of permanent water shortages during even the wettest of years, and ever-escalating disaster during multi-year droughts” if it’s not repaired.

Two years ago, voters approved a $7.5 billion water bond to improve this situation. The funds would be spent on “surface and groundwater storage,” “water supply management and conveyance,” and “drought relief.” As much as $2.7 billion was earmarked for “water storage projects, dams, and reservoirs.” But critics say that California is sitting on needed projects.

The San Joaquin Valley is called the “breadbasket” and “food basket of the world” for good reason. Its 20,000 square miles produce 8 percent of the nation’s agriculture output by value, about a quarter of its food, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, and 40 percent of the fruits, nuts, and other table foods consumed in this country. It’s an indispensable resource.

Despite the valley’s importance, Congressman Devin Nunes believes that environmentalists want to drive farmers out of it through water deprivation. With the San Joaquin Valley now in its third decade of a government-caused water shortage, it’s hard to argue with the Republican, whose valley district is home to nearly 4,000 farms. He’s met with the extreme Greens and seen their plans, which are disastrous for his constituents.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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