California's drought is not about "fish versus farmers"


If there was a moment when the California drought fully entered the national media spotlight, it came earlier this month when President Obama swooped into California’s parched Central Valley and announced $200 million in federal emergency aid. The president’s visit came days after the announcement of a bill from California Democratic senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, which would provide $300 million in funds for water projects and also  accelerate the approval process for water transfers from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta. Last Friday, Governor Jerry Brown announced $687 million in drought relief from the state.

For weeks leading up to the arrival of the president and relief funds, media reports had been painting a picture of a state being laid to waste by lack of precipitation. At the beginning of the month, the Department of Water Resources announced a zero percent allocation from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta for the state's 29 public water agencies – a first in the century-long history of the state’s infrastructure that shuttles water from Northern to Southern California. And last week, the Bureau of Reclamation followed suit, declaring that no water would be coming from federal reservoirs and canals to the Central Valley. According to the California Department of Public Health, 17 communities statewide are at risk of running out of water altogether. Images of parched farms in the Central Valley and small towns in northern California with reservoirs reduced to mudflats have filled front pages of national papers and  slots on nightly news broadcasts.

This warning sign is near Wasco, California, in the Central Valley. PHOTO BY JEREMY MILLER.

The trouble with the sudden rush of national media attention is the glaring lack of context that accompanies many reports.

Let me begin by saying, there is no doubt that this drought is serious business. Last year was the driest calendar year on record in California, and by some accounts, the drought is the worst the state has experienced in 500 years. But we should not lose sight of the fact that California precipitation is notoriously variable and drought is a common state of affairs here and throughout the American West. According to the California Department of Water Resources, this is the ninth instance of multi-year drought on record in California since the turn of the 20th century.

To report on this drought as if it is not part of an emergent and possibly intensifying climatic pattern is a little like Tom Hanks’s “Mr. Short Term Memory” character from Saturday Night Live, who, shortly after taking a bite of food, declares loudly, “Hey! There's something in my mouth! There’s food in my mouth!”

Perhaps more disconcerting is that, in the constant churn of the 24-hour drought news cycle, one persistent cliché of California water politics has been repeated time and again. The favorite sound-bite is that state and federal water-pumping restrictions have led to harmful water policies that put “fish before farmers.”

This catchy phrase references regulations to protect federally endangered fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta – where the state’s two largest river systems end and its two major irrigation systems begin. Some farmers, particularly those in the arid southern reaches of the valley, say that those rules make water deliveries an unknown quantity from year to year, and makes farming a risky, even untenable, proposition. Though it’s a real issue that deserves attention, by focusing on the “farmers versus fish” trope, the media conflates the current drought with a long-standing battle between farmers in the western Central Valley and state and federal water regulators.

A sign on Highway 46 west of the Westlands Water District, California, that is part of the larger “fish versus farmers” campaign. PHOTO BY JEREMY MILLER.

The “fish before farmers” rhetoric was even repeated – and published uncritically by scores of news agencies – by House speaker John Boehner, who visited the dry southern reaches of the Central Valley nearly a month before the president. In an effort to supposedly combat the current dry spell, Boehner offered support for a bill authored by California House Republicans that would, among other things, provide funding to build more dams, allow for increased pumping to meet the demands of farms to the south, and lift endangered species protections for fish in the Delta, namely the diminutive Delta smelt. "How you can favor a fish over people is something the people in my part of the world would not understand," said Boehner, standing before a vast strip of fallow farmland.

For those whose ears are not attuned to the dog-whistle lexicon of California’s water wars, Boehner would appear to be speaking on behalf of all California growers, and against regulation-loving enviros who, as the GOP narrative goes, would rather see California’s agricultural sector reduced to dust than a single Delta smelt harmed.

The truth is that Boehner was actually delivering a political speech on behalf of a small cadre of outspoken, politically connected growers in the Westlands Water District, many of whom grow water-intensive crops such as tomatoes, almonds and cotton along the arid and salt-encrusted western fringes of the Central Valley. (In addition to being dry, the southern reaches of the Central Valley are, not surprisingly, among the most solidly conservative regions in California.) Westlands farmers are also outspoken as a matter of necessity. Not only do they farm some of the most inhospitable land in the entire state, but they hold the most junior water rights among contractors in the area, and are therefore first to have water allocations cut when overall deliveries are reduced.

Dry pasture in Westlands Water District, California. PHOTO BY JEREMY MILLER.

There is a reason Boehner chose to deliver his speech near Bakersfield and not, say, Isleton or Walnut Grove, agricultural towns in the heart of the Delta that stand in fierce opposition to increased pumping from the great tidal estuary proposed by the speaker. Had Boehner delivered his “fish versus farmers” spiel to a crowd of the Delta’s pear or cherry farmers, he would have been jeered. (One Delta farmer I spoke with last December told me there is widespread fear that if more water is pumped and the proposed Bay Delta conveyance tunnels being pushed by Gov. Brown are built, the Delta will become “the next Owens Valley.” This, of course, is a reference to the diversion of water by Los Angeles from the remote valley hundreds of miles to the north – and a politically charged statement in its own right, albeit one with a more plausible historical precedent.)

This is not to suggest that farmers from Eureka to El Centro are not seriously concerned about the lack of water. But national media coverage has largely confused reasons for the current drought – climate change, agricultural inefficiency, poor water planning, and urban development in an inherently arid region – with a political dispute between Westlands farmers and state and federal water regulators that long predates the current dry spell – and that will continue long after.

By choosing to focus on tired political rhetoric, the media has, by and large, avoided serious discussion of climate change, population growth, crumbling infrastructure and wasteful water practices in the state’s agricultural, industrial and residential sectors – all of which are much more serious factors underlying the state’s current water dilemma.  It has also overlooked the growing ranks of California farmers – in Westlands and elsewhere – making serious strides in improving agricultural water efficiency.

Drought-damaged cotton field in Westlands Water District, California. PHOTO BY JEREMY MILLER.

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe," John Muir famously wrote. We in California happened to be hitched together by way of a wildly ambitious and highly vulnerable water system. And as the drought becomes more severe, our hitched-ness becomes even more evident. We see that California’s water systems are not really working well for anyone – from wealthy farmers in the Central Valley who are not getting their full allocation of water; to the working poor of the Central Valley, many of whom are denied water from these great public works projects and forced to rely on contaminated groundwater for drinking and bathing; to the residents of metropolitan Los Angeles at the end of the pipe who precariously depend on the Delta to meet a huge proportion of their water needs.

Here are a few stories from High Country News that will help you make the larger connections:

Matt Weiser, “The Sacramento-San Joaquin Deltas of 1772 and Today

Emily Green, “Tunneling Under California’s Water Wars

Matt Jenkins, “California’s Tangled Water Politics

Jeremy Miller, “California Farm Communities Suffer Tainted Drinking Water

Jeremy Miller is a contributing editor to High Country News.

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