Instead of pink blossoms and green shoots along Highway 5 in April, vast spans from Bakersfield to Fresno sit bone-dry. Brown grass, dead orchards and lifeless grapevine skeletons stretch for miles for lack of water. For every fallow field, there’s a sign that farmers have placed alongside the highway: “No Water = No Food,” “No Water = No Jobs,” “Congress Created Dust Bowl.”
Locals say it’s been like this for two years now, as Congress and bureaucrats cite “drought,” “global warming” and “endangered species” to deny water to this $37 billion breadbasket through arbitrary “environmental” quotas.
It started with a 2008 federal court order that stopped water flowing from northern tributaries on a supposed need to protect a small fish – the delta smelt – that was getting ground up in the turbines of pump stations that divert the water south. The court knew it was bad law, but Congress refused to exempt the fish from the Endangered Species Act and the diversion didn’t help the fish.
After that, the water cutoff was blamed on “drought,” though northern reservoirs are currently full. Now the cry is “save the salmon,” a reference to water needs of the state’s northern fisheries.
Whatever the excuse, 75% of the fresh water that has historically irrigated California is now being washed to the open sea. For farmers in the southwest part of the valley, last year’s cutoff amounted to 90%.
“It’s pretty hard to keep crops alive at 10%,” says Jim Jasper, who runs a 62-year-old almond farm in Newman that employs 170. “That’s one irrigation, and trees take 10 to 12 over the growing season from March to October.” Almond trees cost $8,000 per acre and take six years to start producing, so farmers reserved their 10% allocation for mature trees first.
The cutoff didn’t kill just trees, however. It also devastated the area’s economy. Unemployment in some valley towns has shot up to 45%. Mortgage defaults are on the rise, and food lines are lengthening.