A Legislative Drought
Jul 23, 2009
Can you imagine California without farms? Secretary of Energy Steven Chu already has.
“We’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California,” he said earlier this year.
He was talking about the threat of climate change—and the prospect that rising temperatures could cause the Sierra snowpack to melt permanently. This would devastate farms in the San Joaquin Valley. “I don’t think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen,” said Chu.
Maybe not. Yet some public officials are doing their best to give us a taste of this grim future. By hurting the Golden State’s farmers, they’re throwing people out of jobs and jeopardizing one of America’s most important sources of food.
The problem is a drought, brought on by weather patterns outside our control and political malfeasance that is entirely man-made. It’s amazing how some people can take a bad situation and make it worse.
Get used to hearing about water scarcity. Around the world, it’s an emerging problem. More than a billion people live in areas where water is in short supply. If they resort to drinking unclean water, they put their health at risk: cholera, typhoid fever, and dysentery become everyday threats.
If current trends continue, one day we may worry about water the way we now agonize about energy. One important difference is that with oil, at least we have the opportunity to develop alternatives, such as biofuels. Water, however, has no substitute. It’s the ultimate biofuel—an irreplaceable ingredient for life itself.
In California, we aren’t getting nearly enough. This year, I’ve had to let a good portion of my own cropland lie fallow, simply because I can’t deliver enough water. Many other farmers are making similar decisions, out of sheer necessity. In Fresno County alone, the water shortage has idled 262,000 acres. Throughout the state, the figure is 450,000 acres.
For a state that produces about half of America’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts, this is a major problem. Consumers will feel the consequences when they pay more at the grocery store for everything from canned tomatoes to almonds.
More rainfall would help, but that’s not the only problem. Politics is wreaking havoc as well. Radical environmentalists favor fish over farmers. In particular, they’re lobbying on behalf of a minnow-like species called the delta smelt. Their efforts are working, as public officials in both Sacramento and Washington conspire to neglect the needs of agriculture.
Water levels in our area are actually at about 95-percent normal. Farmers, however, are getting only about 10 percent of their fair share, based on agreements we have made with the government. We’re trumped by the delta smelt. This is not a phenomenon of climate, but rather a political choice. That’s why I’ve started referring to our problem as a “legislative drought.”
It’s a strange set of circumstances, given the financial crisis. The University of California at Davis estimated that 35,000 people had lost their agricultural jobs as of May. A few of our towns have some of the highest unemployment rates in the country. In addition, farm revenue was down by $830 million. If lawmakers truly want to stimulate our local economy, they simply should release more water to food producers.
If they don’t, and this problem persists, Steven Chu’s alarming vision of California agriculture could come to pass. More than jobs are at stake. Americans would have to rely upon imports for much of their food supply. This would imperil our national food security.
A few weeks ago, thousands of farmers and farm workers staged a demonstration, calling for better management of our natural resources. “Water makes the difference between the Garden of Eden and Death Valley,” said the comedian Paul Rodriguez, whose parents are farmers in the region.
We aren’t looking to rebuild the Garden of Eden, of course. All we want is the water that will let us grow enough crops to maintain our livelihoods and sell the food that everybody needs.
Unfortunately, a line from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is now coming to describe the plight of the California farmer: “Water, water everywhere / Nor any drop to drink.”
Ted Sheely raises lettuce, cotton, tomatoes, wheat, pistachios, wine grapes and garlic on a family farm in the California San Joaquin Valley. He is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology www.truthabouttrade.org