California Department of Water Resources

Water wars

Economy | California's San Joaquin Valley puts out one-forth of the country's produce but environmentalists are cutting out farmers-leading to rising food prices and failing farms. How much is the smelt worth to you?

Issue: "Pro-baby," Jan. 30, 2010

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.

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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.


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