Updated April 21, 2010
On Sept. 17 of last year, the famously hypertensive right-wing Fox News commentator Sean Hannity rolled into the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley, satellite truck in tow. Months earlier, when it became clear that a 2-year-old drought would grind on for another year, the federal government announced plans to slash water deliveries to local farmers. Hannity smelled blood. He, and many others, quickly blamed the whole crisis on a two-inch-long fish called the Delta smelt, which is protected under the Endangered Species Act. The bright yellow CONGRESS CREATED DUST BOWL signs that began popping up all over the valley were prime-time stuff. And, at least in Hannity's telling, the farmers' fight against the water cutoff was swathed in the populist bunting of a peasant revolt against heavy-handed government.
These farms are muscular emblems of American-style production agriculture, and odds are better than even that something inside your fridge right now was grown on the West Side. One of Heinz's biggest suppliers grows and processes tomatoes here, and the green-produce giant Tanimura & Antle sends armies of workers into the fields to harvest lettuce. The relatives of one of the district's founders raise the organic spinach that goes into Amy's-brand pizzas and vegetable pot pies.
The farmers are confederated as the Westlands Water District. The largest irrigation district in the United States, it has a reputation for bare-knuckled combativeness. But Westlands has fared badly in the face of the drought, complicated by the Endangered Species Act, which has stringent protections for the smelt and several other fish that are affected by pumping operations. Because farmers received only 10 percent of the water they held federal contracts for, they were forced to leave roughly 156,000 acres -- about a quarter of the district -- unplanted this year.
And so Hannity arrived to check out the damage for himself. His retinue set up camp on a fallowed field, clipped microphones to the area's congressional delegation, and began beaming the farmers' plight to the world. As a boom cam floated over the sign-toting, flag-waving throng, Hannity said, "The government has put the interests of a two-inch minnow before all of the great people that you see out here tonight." He brandished a blown-up photo of a smelt and said: "This is what this comes down to: No water for farmers, because of this fish."
The crowd gave a hearty boo. Then the cameras turned to the darling of the hour: Rep. Devin Nunes, the hot-headed 37-year-old Republican who represents the neighboring congressional district. "The liberals and the radical environmental groups have been working on this for decades: They've been trying to turn this into a desert," Nunes fumed. "And what's important about you being here tonight -- and the rest of your viewers need to understand -- is this could happen to you. They're on their way. Nancy Pelosi's the speaker of the house. George Miller's her lieutenant. They're on their way to the rest of America."
But there was more to the story than the drama that Fox News beamed out of Westlands that day. Congressman Nunes had been hard at work in Washington, D.C., introducing a series of amendments that would force the federal government to ignore the Endangered Species Act when it determined how much water to deliver to farmers this year. His efforts were repeatedly turned back. Then, five days after Hannity's broadcast, Jim DeMint, a conservative Republican from South Carolina, introduced a similar amendment in the Senate, with Westlands' endorsement. That's when the needle skipped off the record.
California's warhorse Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, has been a longtime champion of Westlands, but she has also tried to negotiate common ground in the state's complicated water politics. And back home, the California Legislature -- after years of ignoring the problem -- was working feverishly to hammer out a sweeping package of bills to relieve the crisis in the Delta. When Feinstein learned of the DeMint amendment, she denounced it as "a kind of Pearl Harbor on everything that we're trying to do."
The amendment failed. Several days later, before a press conference at the U.S. Department of the Interior, Feinstein approached Tom Birmingham, the man who runs Westlands, and pulled him aside. The senior senator from California managed a tight smile, and then shook her fist at Birmingham, who has contributed to her campaigns. "Tom, I'm angry," she said. "I'm so angry that I want to punch you."
Chastened, Birmingham later made a rare admission that Westlands had gone too far. "We just made a terrible, terrible mistake," he said in early November. "We made a mistake, and we need to acknowledge that."
With scant naturally available water, the West Side was an unlikely place for an agricultural empire to begin rising roughly a century ago. Yet the farmers in Westlands have shown a rare knack for overcoming adversity and actually turning a profit in sometimes seemingly hopeless circumstances. Westlands has never been afraid to aggressively seek advantage wherever it could, and the district has played its cards well. But the foundation beneath the entire enterprise has always been unstable. And if the drought is revealing anything, it is not government regulation run amok but an empire that may have seriously over-extended itself.