Public Policy Gone Wrong

March 11, 2010 06:00 PM

California's taxing water problems are about more than a fish-versus-people struggle or the fallout from drought conditions.

Rather, the water woes of the nation's No. 1 agricultural state are the result of public policy gone wrong, especially where the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) is concerned.

That was the general message from a 10-member panel that spoke Feb. 11 at World Ag Expo in Tulare, Calif.

The session addressed California's water crisis and the ESA. Panelists represented farmers, farm workers, water agencies and legislators.

"This is not about fish versus people,” said panelist Mario Santoyo, assistant general manager of the Friant Water Authority. He represents 19 water districts on the eastern side of California's San Joaquin Valley.

"We need to strike a balance in the ESA,” Santoyo added. "Farming and agriculture are quickly becoming the endangered species, unless we all unite to fight. If we don't, I guarantee you that slowly but surely, agriculture will go away.”

"California is facing a catastrophic situation,” said panel member John Harris, CEO of Harris Ranch, a large diversified beef and crop operation on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley near Coalinga. "We are running on empty. We desperately need water.”

Harris said his operation normally farms 13,000 acres but is down to 5,000 acres this year as a result of water shortages. Farmers are practicing all the conservation methods they can, he said, but it's not enough.

Environmentalists have used the ESA and its resulting biological opinions that protect wildlife "to destroy agricultural growth,” Harris said. Like others on the panel, Harris denounced actions that "allow 120,000 acre-feet of water a day to run into the delta and then into the ocean,” where it's lost.

Panelists also shared their disappointment with U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger's ruling to keep closed the water pumps that control water flow through the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, the hub of the state's water system. The restrictions were put into place last year to protect the delta smelt, a minnow-like fish, from being killed in the pumps. Ag groups had asked for the pumps to be turned on so water could flow south to parched farms.

E-mail Catherine Merlo at

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