There has been an interesting development in the ongoing story of Big Ag v fish in the Great Central Valley of California. Back in January HCN featured an article by Matt Jenkins on that conflict and in particular on the part played by the powerful corporate farmers of the Westlands Water District on the West side of the San Joaquin Valley which extends south from San Francisco Bay.
In spite of the fact that Westlands holds only junior water rights, the powerful District has been able to secure a lion’s share of available irrigation water – that is until the federal Bureau of Reclamation was so hemmed in by drought and ESA court decisions that it could simply no longer deliver the water which Westland’s corporate farmers desired.
Matt Jenkins reported what happened next. Essentially Westlands partnered with conservative members of Congress to take a run at the Endangered Species Act. Like all other Ag interests that have been faced with complying with the powerful endangered species law, Westlands wanted an exemption; let the tiny Delta Smelt get along with less water during the drought so that Westlands could continue to have all the water it desires.
Jenkins reports that Dianne Feinstein – a politician who has always been eager to do the bidding of Westlands and its generous campaign donors – was so furious with the move that she “shook her fist” at Westland’s general manager Tom Birmingham.
The picture Jenkins portrays is of an apologetic and contrite Tom Birmingham. The Westland’s manager protests that District leaders made a “terrible, terrible mistake” by going behind Feinstein’s back.
Subsequently, however, Ms. Feinstein has sought to do precisely what Tom Birmingham and the super-wealthy members of the Westlands Water District wanted but which Republicans could not deliver – an ESA exemption which would allow the water to again flow toward the big money on the West side of the San Joaquin Valley. Matt Jenkins also reported on that move by the senior senator from California as did just about every reporter and blogger who writes on California fish and water issues. Here are links to two of the best among those reports and blog posts – one from the Trout Underground and another from the Fish Sniffer.
Careful study of the reports suggests that Westland’s Tom Birmingham knew exactly how Feinstein would react to Westland's mating dance with Republicans. In fact, you can bet that the message to Feinstein was intentional: if you do not do our bidding, the Republicans will become our champion and they – not you – will get the big campaign bucks. Subsequent events confirm that it is indeed the dog that wags the tail and not – as the first Jenkins article suggested – the tail wagging the dog.
In case you were wondering, Feinstein is the tail.
For those who want to track California’s ongoing Central Valley water drama I recommend the website of the Restore the Delta coalition.