More than a little blood has been shed in California’s bitter water wars.
The conspiracies spawned by our internecine conflicts over water have been so intricate and, often, breathtakingly shameless that they’ve become the stuff of literary inspiration and political legend.
Think Los Angeles’ surreptitious accumulation of farmers’ water rights in the Owens Valley or San Francisco’s successful campaign to turn the Hetch Hetchy Valley — the state’s “second Yosemite” — into a vast reservoir, the fight that broke John Muir’s heart. The cost to the losers in these struggles, including California’s environment, often has been considerable, and yet the plain truth is that every one of the state’s great economic engines — from its cities and creative scientific and technology clusters to its incomparably abundant agricultural industry — exists because of water imported from some other region.
If ever there was proof of Balzac’s famous maxim that “behind every great fortune lies a great crime,” it’s California’s economy, which would be the world’s ninth largest if we were an independent nation.
It wasn’t all that surprising, then, that as the state entered its third year of record-breaking drought, the Central Valley’s agribusiness interests attempted to steal a march on the rest of the state’s water users and ram through Congress a special-interest bill that would essentially pre-empt California’s state water law, gut a number of painfully worked out environmental restoration programs and guarantee the walnut, almond and grape growers of the West Valley would continue receiving their current levels of surface water for irrigation.
HR 3964, which was introduced by Rep. David Valadao, a Republican dairy farmer from Hanford, also would strip the Valley’s Chinook salmon of both federal and state protected status and undo current restoration and protection programs for the San Joaquin and Merced rivers.
It’s not hard to see the hand of Kern County GOP Congressman Kevin McCarthy — the GOP’s House whip — in all this, since Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, traveled to Bakersfield a few weeks ago to announce introduction of the legislation. Its passage through the usually-do-nothing House has been nothing short of miraculous, and Wednesday the bill cleared that chamber 229-121 on an essentially party-line vote. (A Fresno Democrat crossed the aisle to vote for Valadao’s bill.)
The debate went pretty much as one would predict: The GOP accused the Democrats of putting “fish ahead of people.” Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, thundered, “We have listened to the environmental left for 40 years, and this is where it’s gotten us.” John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, warned that passage of the bill would “set off a new water war.” (One never wants to see the facts blunt a good political talking point, but how sinister environmentalists or endangered species protections managed to depress this winter’s Sierra snowpack to 12 percent of normal is anybody’s guess.)
HR 3964, which Gov. Jerry Brown has denounced as a destructive intrusion into state water policies that “falsely suggests the promise of water relief when that is simply not possible given the scarcity of water supplies,” has little chance of passing the Senate, where its opposed by both Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. Moreover, Wednesday the White House released a statement saying that if the bill were to reach President Barack Obama’s desk, he would veto it because it would “disrupt decades of work that supports building consensus, solutions, and settlements that equitably address some of California’s most complex water challenges.”
It’s tempting to say, therefore, that all that’s been accomplished — apart from sowing renewed distrust and bitterness here in California — is the creation of a handy rhetorical issue for the Central Valley GOP to use in swing districts during the upcoming midterms. And yet ...
As overreaching and slightly absurd as HR 3964 may be, it points to just how tricky and tortured a balancing act state water policy is likely to become, if the current drought stretches on — as it very well may do. In this instance, the agricultural sector was greedy and deceitfully self-interested, but there are real and legitimate interests at stake. Despite the size of our cities, farming still consumes a stunning 80 percent of all the state’s water resources, but it also generates $45 billion annually in economic activity.
A 2012 study by the University of California at Davis found that farming and food processing provide 38 percent of all Central Valley jobs. Every 100 employees in those sectors create work for another 92 people, according to the study. In Fresno County, which has the country’s richest agricultural sector, farming and its related service industries supply 38 percent of all jobs. Unemployment in Fresno already is well over 30 percent, and — according to the Farm Bureau — if the county’s farmers have to go without their regular surface water allotments, they’ll have to idle about a quarter of their land, which means that as many as 50 percent of the area’s workers will be out of a job.
This is still America’s leading farm state and produces more than half the nation’s fruit, nut and vegetable crops, as well as being the biggest producer of dairy products and wine. Only Texas produces more livestock or cotton than California does. No other state in the union grows as many greenhouse or nursery plants — more than $3 billion annually. The grape and almond industries in the West Valley generate more than $4 billion each every year. We raise more than $1 billion worth of lettuce and an equally lucrative strawberry crop. We sell more than $1 billion worth of tomatoes and almost $7 billion worth of milk.
All of that takes water, but so do cities, and the time is long past when Californians were comfortable making no provisions for the health of our wildlife and the natural environment.
Climate scientists say their research shows that the period in which our state’s settlement and economic development has occurred has been one of historically anomalous climate stability. Much of this region’s longer history has been marked by far greater extremes of wet and dry than anything we’ve experienced over the past two centuries — including so-called mega-droughts that have gone on for more than two centuries.
There’s a great deal of conflict ahead of us over water, and even if we manage to check the greed of the self-interested few, many of the unavoidable choices are going to be painful.