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California's Critical Water Issues - No Easy Answer

The Crops And Farm Workers' Jobs Whose Livelihood Is Threatened By Lack Of WaterEndangered Delta SmeltThere is a contentious water problem raging throughout California’s San Joaquin Valley – an area that produces a major portion of domestic food – that pits environmental protection against domestic agriculture and food supply.

The problem being – water is scarce. And, becoming increasingly scarce, as multiple contenders – farmers, residents and endangered fish – vie for the same water reserve.

Opinions vary on who is depleting the supply and who deserves a greater piece, but one thing is clear – the supply is waning steadily and has critical, far-reaching implications on, not only California’s farmers and the American food supply, but the California and American economy, the environment and ultimately – the American consumer.

Without water, crops obviously cannot grow in California, and California is the only state where many of these crops are capable of growing. Therefore, numerous farmers could be forced out of business, and their respective crops could be reduced or eliminated. We’ve already witnessed significant cutbacks.

Domestic crop reduction could potentially burden the American consumer in several ways.

For starters, if these crops are not grown in California, U.S. consumers will either go without them or will be forced to rely on foreign countries for these fruits, vegetables, etc. In some cases, imported crops are more expensive than domestic produce and some pose a greater food safety risk than domestic produce, as foreign safety standards often aren’t as stringent as those in the U.S. Imported products also compromise freshness, flavor and the environment.

However, endangered fish apparently need this water, too. Hence, where do we go from here?

A little background might help.

Differing Views

- The California water crisis stems largely from environmental restrictions that have ceased water supplies flowing into the San Joaquin Valley – to famers and residents – from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (a conveyance system many call antiquated), in order to redirect it to the endangered delta smelt fish, many say.

San Joaquin’s farmers have faced water reductions for multiple years, but the recent move to turn off the delta pumps mean San Joaquin farmers are now receiving only 10% of the water supply they were previously allocated. And, previous water supplies were marginal, considering farmers south of the delta received only half of what they anticipated in 2007, and 40% in 2008 (due to federal mandates), said Lester Snow, director of the California Department of Water Resources, in a Los Angeles Times article.

Tom Birmingham, general manager of the Westlands Water District, said 1 million acres of almonds, tomatoes, lettuce, grapes and other commodities are “in a crisis” due to environmental regulations, according to an article on the San Diego News Network.

- On the other hand, biologists say the health of the delta smelt – a 2- to 3-inch fish – indicates the overall health of the ecosystem, including other fish species, like striped bass, longfin smelt, threadfin shad and Chinook salmon, according to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle. (Likely why the federal government is on the brink of implementing further water restrictions to protect the Chinook salmon, the steelhead and other fish, with estimates predicting further eradication of 500,000 acre-feet of water, according to an article in The Washington Times.)

- Others claim California’s three-year drought is to blame for the water reduction.

- Still, some environmentalists say the agricultural industry needs to operate more efficiently and learn to use water more conservatively.

Numbers show, however, that California’s limited water supply is causing economic catastrophes, particularly scaled-back crop production (due to lack of water and, thus, higher water costs) and rising unemployment (fewer farms and, thus, farm jobs).

According to estimates by agricultural and business groups, 250,000 acres of farmland are dying or inactive. Agricultural production from California’s Central Valley is projected to drop by between $1 billion and $3 billion this year, compared to last, as stated in The Washington Times article.

These are critical numbers, considering California’s Central Valley provides “94% of America’s tomatoes, 93% of our broccoli, 89% of our carrots, 86% of our garlic, 78% of our lettuce, 90% of our strawberries and 88% of our grapes…just to name a few,” said South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, in an article on KMJNow.

Minimal Solutions

While solutions are being proposed from government, farmers, environmentalists and the general public, finger pointing, as well as a seeming lack of understanding among parties, remains, allowing for no consensus.

- U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack promised California farmers he’d work towards solutions to resolve the water dilemma. But how? And when? And who receives the brunt?

- Senator DeMint suggested an amendment to the Interior Appropriations Act for 2010, stalling funding for one year for the two environmental restrictions that caused the delta pumps to be turned off. Doing so would allow farmers to replenish their lands, plant crops and put people to work, while providing lawmakers additional time to determine an answer to the problem, according to the KMJNow article. The Senate rejected his plan.

- A study entitled – “California Water 2030: An Efficient Future” – conducted by The Pacific Institute details a High Efficiency plan for water savings that conserves significantly more water than the status quo. It relies on farmers adopting more efficient water programs and transitioning to higher-valued crops, with the belief the “price farmers receive for particular crops remains the same.” As a result, the “High Efficiency scenario assumes that improvements in irrigation efficiency do not increase total yields, but rather that farmers capture the savings by reducing total water demand.” Great in theory, but switching to more efficient programs is costly, and crop prices do not stay consistent year round, as there are several variables – besides water – to consider.

- The Pacific Legal Foundation presented a “Save Our Water” petition with 12,000 signatures, asking Governor Schwarzenegger to request the federal government summon the federal Endangered Species Committee, aka the “God Squad,” to eliminate the water restrictions. The God Squad, though rarely utilized, is a clause within the Endangered Species Act, allowing the committee to overrule species protection in the cases of economic emergency, according to The Washington Times article. Both Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Lester Snow discouraged that idea.

Obviously, there is no simple conclusion, but, ideally, a decision needs to be reached that protects American farmers, American food, American consumers, the American economy and the country’s environment. If that can’t be brokered, it comes down to what’s more important for the greater population – domestic food and jobs or endangered fish? Hopefully, we don’t have to choose.

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