Read environmental press releases or watch rallies televised by conservative talk show hosts, and it's easy to get the impression that the water issues crippling the San Joaquin Valley-an agricultural region in California that supplies more than 25 percent of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables the rest of the nation enjoys-all come down to a two-inch fish.
In one corner stands the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). With Earthjustice it successfully sued to decrease the amount of water channeled from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River delta to central farmlands in order to protect the minnow-like smelt. In the other corner stands the agricultural industry with its federal contracts for specified amounts of water. Denied it in favor of the smelt, they claim, they have been forced to fallow hundreds of thousands of acres of land and put tens of thousands of people out of work.
But talk to people on the ground and you find that the suffering-towns with 40 percent unemployment and food banks that aren't equipped to feed an increasing number of hungry people-is far more complex. And it can be traced back further than the recent smelt-related rulings that made national news.
The delta smelt became the poster fish for California's decades-long water fight after a district court in Fresno sided with the NRDC in its claim that irrigation pumps caused a population decline in the federally protected fish. In 2007, Judge Oliver Wanger ordered a severe curtailment in pump production from January to June to prevent smelt from being caught in pumps during spawning season. San Joaquin Valley farmers have since had to rely on about one-third less water.
This is the point at which the story often breaks down into conservative grousing about liberal courts favoring environmentalists. Except that area farmers who spoke to me were the first to defend Judge Wanger, saying he was only following the letter of laws that have in fact hurt the agricultural industry for years.
Tony Azevedo and his family have grown pistachios, onions, garlic, and tomatoes on their 10,000 acres since the 1940s. Azevedo says the protections mandated by the Endangered Species Act, combined with the official opinion of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) that irrigation pumps threaten the smelt, left Wanger little option. "Honestly, our side didn't have much to defend against the biological opinion [of the FWS]. So the environmental groups with their attorneys won." He and his fellow farm owners are hopeful that Wanger will overturn another biological opinion that will have the pumps running at a restricted capacity for an additional five months starting in 2010. "Now we're looking at pumps that are only going to be allowed to be turned on one month out of the year," says Azevedo. "But Judge Wanger knows the economic devastation it has caused the state of California and the hardship to a lot of people out of work here. I know he's sympathetic to that."
Certainly the smelt issue on its own is a messy kettle of fish, the biggest point of contention being the factors the FWS failed to consider when issuing its opinion. It didn't analyze the impact of treated sewage from cities like Sacramento on the delta's ecosystem. It failed to take into account non-native fish species. "There are invasive species like striped bass that were introduced by the California Fish and Game department that eat the smelt," Azevedo argues. "They stocked the bass for the fishermen, but the FWS didn't factor that in their opinion on the pumps."
Azevedo hits upon issues that go far beyond the ruling on the smelt to the Byzantine factions that make up California's water wars. It's not just a question of farmer versus environmentalist. Recreational demands on the water also make it a question of farmer versus fisherman. Population explosion makes it a question of farmer versus municipality. Territorialism makes it a question of northern farmer versus southern farmer. The one thing they all seem to have in common is in the end it's Central Valley farmers who are rationed. "What flabbergasts me," says Azevedo, "is that the NRDC and Environmental Defense Fund aren't going after cities for sewage dumping, or Fish and Game for altering the ecosystem. They're going after us, the people who produce the food everybody eats."
Robert Shuler, California's undersecretary of agriculture during the 1990s and former general counsel for Sunsweet Growers Inc., says it's "an incredibly complicated issue," starting in 1985 when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a law prohibiting the development of five large northern California rivers that collectively dump trillions of gallons of water into the ocean-enough to supply more than 100 million people annually. Then in 1992 U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, a close ally of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, helped author the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, a law that diverted over 43 percent of the water going to valley farmers to wildlife habitat projects.
Some of those reallocations, such as the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement, have raised eyebrows across the state. Projected to cost between $1 billion and $2.5 billion in the cash-strapped state, its aim is to revive the largely dry San Joaquin River and restock it with salmon. Executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, Ryan Jacobsen, says he can't help but question such decisions: "So a ton of water that was previously used for irrigation purposes is now going to be used to bring more salmon to the river? You have tax dollars and water that were used to generate farm jobs, increase economic activity, and produce food the entire world eats that are now being transferred to a recreational project. You have to ask, is that a wise move?"
With the recent shifts in the water supply, 46 percent of California's developed water is currently apportioned for environmental use-with 43 percent going to agriculture (the remainder goes to urban use).
Shuler says his major concern is that the industry that produces food and jobs receives the water it needs: "These are all economic issues and they need to be dealt with in a rational fashion as opposed to an emotional approach of wanting to save every little species irrespective of the impact it has on man." He adds one overriding question: "Why, when considering how to help different animals, wouldn't humans be considered part of that calculation?"
Scott Foth, managing director at a fertilizer supply company in the small community of Five Points, describes scenes of human devastation he sees these days: "People are standing in food lines that I've never seen in food lines before. They've got food lines in Kerman, in San Joaquin, Firebaugh, Mendota. I'm talking about lines three to four people wide extending around the building."
The pain is rippling outward and will continue, Foth predicts. He says businesses like his that are ancillaries of the farming industry are the first pulled down with agriculture's collapse, but that countless others will tumble after: "The farmers don't have water to farm so we're not servicing them with fertilizers and crop protection chemicals because they don't have as much need for them. Since we don't have as much work, we don't need to buy parts and tires from the places that service our equipment. Since we're not buying from them, they don't have as much money for groceries. It's an endless downward trickle."
Foth says this is the first time in its 20-year history that his company has had to lay off workers. He has cut 10 percent of his workforce and worries more layoffs are around the corner.
Those who argue on behalf of the Central Valley farmers say the trickle won't end at the California state lines: "I think the public is totally oblivious to what this is going to do to their food prices and quality," says Foth. "We in the United States rely on the San Joaquin Valley to provide a huge portion of the food supply. If Valley farmers continue to experience the fallout from not having adequate access to water, consumers are going to have to do what we do with oil-start relying on foreign providers. But how safe is the supply from Chile or China going to be when we can't regulate their farming industry?"
Paul Simonds, communication manager of the Western Growers Association, points out that neither Salazar nor any federal officials have stepped in to authorize any of the water pumping projects Valley farmers have requested: "We need the administration to make this a priority issue. We need real action." Simonds frames the stakes simply: "Agriculture has done an amazing job at providing the public hundreds of different products 12 months of the year nationwide. So Americans generally take it for granted that if they want strawberries in the winter they can go down to the grocery store and buy strawberries. If they want avocados, they go get avocados, and that is a real testament to the abilities of this industry. But we haven't done a great job helping the public see the significance of that. . . . In agriculture we aren't really the water users, it's the consumer that is the ultimate beneficiary of this water."