Planet Gore

In California, Fish Come Before Farmers

From the weekend WSJ. An excerpt:

Crops rot and people stand in line for food while the EPA engineers a drought

San Joaquin Valley, Calif.

In 1931, a severe drought began that within a few years engulfed the Oklahoma panhandle and a third of the Great Plains in a “Dust Bowl.” Tens of thousands of people fled the region — many traveling to California along Route 66, which John Steinbeck called “the mother road, the road of flight” in “The Grapes of Wrath.”

A lot of the “Okies” settled in the San Joaquin Valley. In the decades that followed, state and federal officials built dams and other irrigation projects that helped turn the valley into some of the world’s richest farmland.

But today the San Joaquin Valley is being transformed into a dust bowl. Hundreds of thousands of acres are fallow, while almond and plum trees are being left to die in the scorching sun. Tens of thousands of people have been tossed out of work — the town of Mendota alone has an unemployment rate of about 40% — and the lines for food donations stretch down streets. The reason? There isn’t enough water to go around this year, and the Obama administration is drawing up new reasons to divert more of it from farms and people and into the San Francisco Bay.

The valley has traditionally been a place where someone with few belongings, little education and even no ability to speak English could prosper by picking grapes, milking cows, or hoeing cotton fields. The hearty people who came here were Portuguese, Mexican, Armenian, Italian, Basque and Dutch, along with westward-traveling Americans and Okies. More recent arrivals are from El Salvador, Vietnam and India. I am the product of a Portuguese family that came decades ago.

California has the largest water storage and transportation system in the world. With 1,200 miles of canals and nearly 50 reservoirs, the system captures enough water to irrigate about four million acres and provide water to 23 million people. In many cases, as with the San Joaquin Valley, water in this system is sold to communities by the federal government.

Some claim that California is facing a three-year-old drought. But, according to the state’s Department of Water Resources, California reservoirs have received 80% of their normal amount of water and precipitation in the northern Sierras has been 95% of its yearly average this year. So why isn’t there more water for farms? Because theirs is a regulatory-mandated drought. The 1973 Endangered Species Act requires that the government take steps to save endangered species. In California, that’s meant diverting vast sums of water into rivers and streams to protect fish. Those diversions this year have forced federal authorities to decide who to serve — fish or farmers.

The rest here.

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