California’s farmland lies fallow for a fish
San Joaquin Valley, Calif. — “We have the greatest factory anywhere on earth,” Harris Farms’ executive vice president, William Bourdeau, tells me, as our car bumps rapidly along the dirty, uneven track. “These are pistachio trees,” he says, sweeping his hand across the horizon. “Over there, we have asparagus.” He points through the windshield. “And in that facility, we process garlic.”
Around the corner and away from the freeway, I see almonds, broccoli, onions, watermelons, and tomatoes. Lettuce, which in the grand scale of things is a mere afterthought for Harris, is produced nevertheless on an astonishing scale, with 3 million cartons — 72 million head — being shipped out each year, the fruit of 700,000 man hours. On neighboring Harris Ranch, the largest in the West, there are 100,000 cattle, most of which will eventually end up at In-N-Out burger joints along the Pacific Coast and throughout the Southwest. The smell of the cattle permeates the air for a good mile around, announcing the farm to travelers before any signs come into view. In the distance, the mountains loom large.
“Factory” is a good word to describe California’s San Joaquin Valley. But “laboratory” might be a little better, for the region is an agri-tinkerer’s delight. The soil being uncharacteristically fertile and the summers being long and dry, growers are afforded that most valuable of things: control. Emancipated from Gaia’s caprice, farmers here can determine precisely not only how much water they wish to provide to their crops but when to add it, too. Which is to say that, in the Central Valley, irrigation is achieved not by the whimsy of the sky but by deliberately placed pipes, pumps, and microprocessors. It is here that the ancient earth meets the best of technology; where Silicon Valley meshes with the baser elements and, together, they yield life. “If the Pilgrims had landed in California,” Ronald Reagan liked to joke, “the East Coast would still be a wilderness.” Undoubtedly. I suspect fewer Pilgrims would have died, too. Make no mistake: This place is a miracle — a vast greenhouse in which, unmolested by the elements and provided with incomparably fecund terrain, farmers can do their thing as never before.
The results speak for themselves. Just under 13 percent of all agricultural production in the United States takes place in the region, which the locals refer to proudly as “the Food Basket of the World” or, occasionally, “America’s Salad Bowl.” Most of the country’s asparagus and raisins are born in these fields; nearby Kings County boasts the largest cotton farm in the world; and among the astonishing array of products shipped out from the area are citrus fruits, pistachios, grapes, peaches, lettuce, tomatoes, garlic, alfalfa, and kiwi fruit. All in all, 250 different crops are grown. “We supply almonds to the world — 80 percent of the total global output,” Bourdeau explains when we arrive at Harris’s shelling facility. “They’re one of the things we’re actually exporting. That’s great for a country that’s a net importer of things.”
It is great, yes. Astonishing and mesmerizing, in fact. And yet I am soon made aware that there is trouble in paradise, for, having first seen what Harris is doing, I am shown in no uncertain terms what Harris is not doing. Suddenly, as if crossing a line of demarcation — I am reminded of Checkpoint Charlie, the gate that linked West and East Berlin — we leave healthy fields bursting with life, and we arrive at . . . well, we arrive at nothing: just dust, quiet, and a few pieces of unused farming equipment. It’s quite the shift: a real-life Before and After comparison. And sadly, most of the farm looks like this. Some 9,000 of Harris’s 15,000 acres are fallow — devoid of water and therefore of crops and of workers and of attention. “Uncertainty is the new normal,” CEO John Harris sighs from the driver’s seat, his smile disappearing. “This is no way to run anything.”
Harris tools the car around untouched pastures, and I am told at length about the Water Troubles. “Without water, we can’t work,” Bourdeau laments from the backseat. “It’s not healthy. We’ll do what we can. We’ll grow what we can grow where we can grow it. But without knowing how much water we’re going to get, it’s so difficult to plan!” A pistachio tree, for example, takes five to seven years to grow. “How can we plant one now if we can’t guarantee we can water it in a couple of years?” Bourdeau asks.
That the drought is making planning all but impossible is a refrain I hear all across the region — both from the established farmers who are desperate to draw next year’s crop map and from the wannabe planters who cannot secure the loans they need to start up on their own. One aspiring rancher tells me that he is thinking of selling his land and moving out. “I wouldn’t lend me the money I need to plant,” he gripes, honestly. “I’m stuck, I guess. I can’t plant. But who will buy my land?”
You have almost certainly never heard of the Delta smelt and, in all honesty, nor should you have. As fish go, it is undistinguished. Inedible, short-lived, and growing to a maximum length of just under three inches, smelt are of interest to nobody much — except, that is, to the implacable foot soldiers of the modern environmental movement, some of whom have recently elevated the smelt’s well-being above all else that has traditionally been considered to be of value. Human beings, the production of food, and the distribution of life-enabling water can all be damned, it seems. All hail the smelt, the most important animal in America.
The Central Valley’s woes began in earnest in 2007, when the hardline Natural Resources Defense Council won a lawsuit against California’s intricate water-delivery system, sending farmers like John Harris into a tailspin. In court, the NRDC’s lawyers contended that the vast pumps that help to funnel water from the reservoirs up in the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta down to the Central Valley, to Southern California, and to the Bay Area were sucking in and shredding an unacceptable number of smelt — and, the smelt being protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) since 1994, that this was illegal.
Given that the NRDC has long wished for farming operations in the valley to be curtailed on the peculiar grounds that it isn’t native to the area, this struck many observers as rather too convenient. Nevertheless, the outfit managed to convince Oliver Wanger, a George H. W. Bush–appointed federal judge on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California, and with so much authority over matters environmental having been delegated, centralized, and put in the hands of judges and bureaucrats, that was all that mattered. Wanger ruled that the protections afforded to the smelt were insufficient and ordered the federal Fish and Wildlife Service to issue a new “biological opinion” on the matter. This the service obediently delivered in early 2007, overturning its previous assessment that the smelt was in “no jeopardy” at all. And that, as they say, was that. What the NRDC could never have achieved legislatively, it achieved via the good old American tradition of lawyering up and smiling at a man in a robe. In 2007, the pumps were turned off; the Delta’s water output was lowered dramatically, contingent now upon the interests of a fish; and the farms that rely on the system in order to grow their crops were thrown into veritable chaos. Predictably, a man-made drought began.
This is a classic tale of activist government run amok — and, too, of the peculiarly suicidal instincts that rich and educated societies exhibit when they reach maturity. Were its consequences not so hideously injurious, the details would be almost comical. As a direct result of the overwrought concern that a few well-connected interest groups and their political allies have displayed for a fish — and of a federal Endangered Species Act that is in need of serious revision — hundreds of billions of gallons of water that would in other areas have been sent to parched farmland have been diverted away from the Central Valley and deliberately pushed out under the Golden Gate Bridge and into the Pacific Ocean, wasted forever, to the raucous applause of Luddites, misanthropes, and their powerful enablers. The later chapters of “The Decline and Fall of the United States” will make interesting reading.
Make no mistake: The rare, hard-done-by, and rightly protected manatee the Delta smelt is not. According to some estimates, there are no more than 3,000 manatees left in the United States, and, when left unchecked, human beings have had a nasty tendency to maim and kill them in the service of nothing more exalted than speedboating. By contrast, when the Great Smelt Freakout of 2007 began, there were 35,000 to well over 100,000 of the little buggers, depending on whom you ask. And yet the powers that be have seen fit to decree that no more than 305 of them may be killed in a given year. As an exasperated Harry Cline, of the Western Farm Press, put it in February, last year “800,000 acre-feet of water went to waste based on the science of four buckets of minnows. That is enough water to produce crops on 200,000 acres or 10 million tons of tomatoes; 200 million boxes of lettuce; 20 million tons of grapes. You get the picture?”
“When they do their fish surveys,” the California Water Alliance’s Aubrey Bettencourt tells me, with a wry smile, “they kill thousands of the smelt. It’s ridiculous. Last year they killed 3,500.” In other words, I suggest, the government kills ten times the number that are allowed to be killed every year in order to find out how many have died.
“Meanwhile,” Bettencourt laughs, “upstream, the state government is planting non-native striped bass to help the fishing industry and placate the fishermen.” The great joke? “These feed on the Delta smelt.”
Politically, agriculture is in a difficult spot. California’s water system was designed to balance municipal, industrial, and agricultural interests. Now a new player — environmentalism — has been added to the equation, and its share of the spoils has had to come from somewhere. That somewhere has been agriculture. “No politician is going to screw over the needs of industry or of people,” Bettencourt explains. “That would be political suicide.” So, they take the water away from the farms instead. “Farmers still pay for the water, even if they don’t get their allocation,” she notes. Last year, farmers got only 40 percent of the water they bought, despite the reservoirs’ being almost full.
One can’t see a clear path for the farmers. According to the 2010 census, 3,971,659 of California’s 37 million residents live in the Central Valley — about as many people as live in the city of Los Angeles. But since they lack the political clout to get much done, their cause has languished. Once upon a time, most Americans knew at least one farmer, and they realized all too well that there was a genuine risk involved in working the land. Perhaps they killed and skinned their food themselves; perhaps they raised chickens; perhaps they bought produce by the side of the road from the Jones boy in the next village. Being involved in the production process in some way or another, they knew where food came from. In the age of abundance, it is a different story. Nowadays, most Americans buy their food from the supermarket. They are assiduously inoculated from exposure to reality, and they enjoy the time and the sense of material security that is necessary for a religion such as Environmentalism to flourish. “Basically, our priorities have changed,” Bettencourt concludes — an understatement.
Congress’s priorities have changed, too. In 2009, when the deleterious consequences of the elective drought made national news, Republican representative George Radanovich of California proposed the Drought Alleviation Act, which would have funded a fish hatchery to replace any smelt that were killed by the pumps, thereby allowing a return to normalcy. The House’s Democratic leadership refused even to discuss the bill. In the same year, Devin Nunes, another California Republican, introduced the Turn On the Pumps Act. It was defeated in the Democratic-led House, with not a single California Democrat voting aye. In 2012, the Republican House passed another bill, H.R. 1837, which would effectively have exempted the smelt from the ESA. It was dead on arrival when it reached the Senate. Harry Reid is on record opposing the bill, and President Obama has promised to veto it if it ever reaches his desk. So, for now at least, the power will remain in the hands of federal bureaucrats. The smelt will prevail.
How times change. Speaking in 1962 at the groundbreaking of the San Luis Reservoir, John F. Kennedy announced enthusiastically that the project was the largest that the federal government had ever undertaken in cooperation with a single state. Hitting a familiar we-choose-to-go-to-the-Moon-esque note, Kennedy told attendees that “for many years, some believed that the water problems of this state were too controversial and too complicated to solve. They believed there was no escaping the effects of drought and flood.” Now, the president proclaimed, such claims were obsolete. “Water,” he argued, “is man’s oldest and most precious natural resource.” The reservoir would guarantee its distribution.
Alas, our 35th president could evidently not imagine the environmental movement, nor, for that matter, a future in which the federal government would be sent down to California not to turn on the spigots and to celebrate great feats of engineering but to close them down. The devastating consequences that the volatility of the water supply has had on the production of food and on the stability of life have been known to man from the beginning of time. So closely is water linked with survival that the Book of Genesis has a section on the farming cycle. “Behold,” Joseph warns, interpreting Pharaoh’s dream, “there come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt. And there shall arise after them seven years of famine; and all the plenty shall be forgotten in the land of Egypt; and the famine shall consume the land.” One can’t help feeling that, had Joseph been in California in 2013, he might have interpreted the dream differently. Seven years of dearth here? That would be preposterous. Right? Well, not if Pharaoh had lived in Washington, D.C., and had a Sierra Club sticker on his Subaru, no.
Driving out of Harris Ranch after my tour, I am met by a string of protest signs that have been erected by a neighboring farmer. “STOP THE CONGRESS CREATED DUST BOWL!” one reads. “NO WATER = NO JOBS!” says another. A third has some choice words for Nancy Pelosi and Barbara Boxer. The farmers here are frustrated, of course. But their unease is nothing compared with that of their workers. In a coffee shop on the outskirts of Fresno, I meet Maria Gutierrez, a retired Univision employee who now volunteers at El Agua Es de Todos, a Hispanic advocacy group that aims to highlight the pain that government policy is causing workers in the area and to get immigrants and their families involved in the debate.
“Seeing what having no water in this valley did to our communities in 2009,” Gutierrez tells me, “I had to get involved. It was devastating: The unemployment rate was 45 percent; people were standing in food lines. It had a terrifying impact.”
“People think of rich farmers,” Gutierrez continues, “but they don’t think about the people who actually work on these farms.” Those people have had it tough. Gutierrez shows me photographs that, but for their clarity and for their subjects’ clothing, could well be mistaken for Depression-era snapshots. In them, lines of hungry children snake around boarded-up blocks; arms are outstretched as volunteers ladle soup into plastic cups; families are living in tents. These, it seems, are the Hoovervilles of the West — forgotten towns, such as Mendota and Huron, that have been ruined by the drought and have still not recovered.
“They’d come up to me,” Gutierrez recalls, “and they’d say, ‘Maria, I lost my car first, then I lost my house, then I lost my marriage, and now my kids can’t go to college.’ It was horrible. I couldn’t stand on the sidelines any longer. We need to do something about it.”
I ask about the politics. Does this divide neatly along party lines? “This shouldn’t be a political issue,” Gutierrez tells me, diplomatically. “This is an everyone issue.” Still, there is certainly an opportunity here for California’s moribund Republicans. Polling conducted by El Agua Es de Todos shows that Hispanics are willing to consider anyone who will take the water issue seriously. Currently, Hispanics in the Central Valley swing Democratic by 70 to 30 percent. If the generic Republican made an issue out of the water problem? It would swing to 60–40 Republican.
Locals here are nervous that what happened in 2009 might happen again — and perhaps even worse this time around. “It had a domino effect on free enterprise here,” Gutierrez tells me. “If people aren’t working, they aren’t buying. So the small businesses close. Look at all the stores that have closed!” The fear is well founded. At the time of writing, the California Department of Water Resources is promising an initial allocation of just 5 percent of purchased water deliveries for 2014. This could always increase later in the year, but, in the meantime, farmers are left with two ugly choices. They can choose to rely instead on what little water is left in their groundwells, but, well water being full of salt and boron, this may damage their land and reduce future yields (almond trees and the soil they grow in react especially badly to this). Alternatively, they can simply let their land remain fallow. Neither is good for production — or for their workers.
Ismael Reyes, Harris Farms’ soft-spoken irrigation manager, is concerned for the area’s future. Reyes emigrated from Mexico to the United States with his family in the late 1960s and has lived in the valley almost his whole life, “I came here when I was little,” he tells me, “and I worked on the land since I was 15 years old. I’m 56 now. I dropped out of school to help the family, and I started in the fields. We didn’t believe in welfare — still don’t. By 1975, I was promoted. I don’t have a degree, but I had learned the language and could keep records.” Reyes is putting his four children through college but worries that they will not be able to do the same — and even that they might have to move out of California.
“It’s falling apart,” he tells me. “In my opinion, this is a choice. The government is allowing this to happen. If there is a shortage of water, we understand. But there is no reason for this. It hurts farmers; it hurts the workers; and we can never plan. It’s a choice — a bad choice. That’s what it is.”
It is a choice that will be difficult to unmake. Suing is futile. The “biological opinions” on which the water allocations now rely are required only to hew to the “best available science,” and this term appears to be as meaningless and as malleable as it sounds. Environmentalist groups claim that the smelt is an “indicator species” — the canary in the coal mine whose supposed decline demonstrates that pumping in the area is destroying the natural habitat — but the degree to which one considers this to be true appears to be based less on objective research than on political posturing. For a long time, both the state government and the Fish and Wildlife Service flatly refused to agree to expanded protections, with officials noting that the smelt’s population has fluctuated routinely — sometimes falling to dangerous lows, sometimes soaring. Now, these officials have bought the line. Quite why is anybody’s guess.
It will remain that way. Because the ESA holds that researchers can declare their work private property, scientists must release only their findings and may keep their data and methods secret. Even when the work has been made public, the government’s case has been flimsy at best. In a subsequent case in 2009, the judge who set the ball rolling, Oliver Wanger, slammed researchers who were providing the biological opinions on which the water allocation is based, accusing them of zealotry, fraud, and junk science, publicly lamenting the consequences of his earlier decision, and charging that the federal government was providing “an answer searching for a question,” an “ends/means equation where the end justified the means no matter how you get there.” Wanger trained his fire on Fish and Wildlife Service’s Jennifer Norris in particular, complaining that she had provided completely different testimony in two different sessions, and that the “record says the opposite of what [she cited] the record for.” “I find her testimony to be that of a zealot,” Wanger wrote. “I’m not overstating the case, I’m not being histrionic, I’m not being dramatic. I’ve never seen anything like it. . . . Protecting endangered species is crucially important. It’s a legislative priority. And even the plaintiffs don’t dispute that. But when it overwhelms us to the point that we lose objectivity, we lose honesty, we’re all in a lot of trouble. Serious, serious trouble.”
Changing the Endangered Species Act seems equally unlikely — at least with Washington, D.C., in its current configuration. And absent an act of Congress, the chances that the smelt will be removed from the list are pretty much nonexistent. The seven-member Endangered Species Committee (ESC), which has the power to exempt federal departments from protecting species named in the Endangered Species Act in cases of regional or national importance, has convened only six times since it was formed in 1978, and only once in its history has it deemed conservation to be less important than the competing interests. The ESC, which critics call the “God Squad,” is expected to make its decisions on the reasonably simple principle that the benefits of any permitted behavior must exceed the benefits of conservation. It would seem that crises such as this one were precisely the reason that rueful lawmakers created the ESC — that now would be the time for a body that exists solely to ensure that environmentalism doesn’t get out of hand. But precedent, alas, is not on Californians’ side.
Inexplicably and inappropriately, it is on this question that President Obama has found his inner federalist. Obama has repeatedly implied that this is an issue for California to resolve on its own, even as he has threatened to veto any changes to the Endangered Species Act, which trumps state law and takes the immediate question out of the hands of local legislators. Nor are Californians likely to get much help from their homegrown power players. Nancy Pelosi is an outspoken environmentalist and, hailing from the Delta area herself, was involved in the original federal power grab in the early 1990s. Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein have both expressed regret, but they are unwilling to countenance changing the smelt’s protected status. Oddly, Governor Jerry Brown has been the most useful of all the Democrats. But without a federal initiative there is little he can really do, and his welcome proposal to build a series of underground tunnels that would bypass the smelt completely would take 15 years to be completed even if it were to be started tomorrow.
And so nothing happens. Each year, farmers sit and wait – praying for rain, and hoping that the federal government will send them a few drops of water so that they do not have to leave perfectly good land fallow and tell their employees that this month there will be no work. Of all our present troubles, California’s farming woes are perhaps the most inexplicably sourced and the most easily fixed. Complacently convinced of their infallibility, legislators in the nation’s richest state have prostrated themselves at the feet of many silly ideas in recent years. But for authorities to have put the livelihood of millions of citizens at the mercy of a tiny little fish is almost too much to bear.