The drought is now killing off century-old California farms. People here don’t blame the weather gods for not bringing rain — they blame the rest of us for not giving a damn.
Scenes from a New America
California Water 101….Got Food? Got Water?
Even in non-drought years the logistics are complex. Snowpack runoff is captured in reservoirs. Rivers and lakes are dammed. Canals snake across the state. Some water is managed at the federal level, some at the state. There are 500 public water districts, each with local ordinances. There are senior water rights, junior rights, riparian rights. As difficult as it is to understand water collection and distribution, Russ and Jim simplify the crisis by reiterating what I heard the night before: Radical environmentalists have effectively lobbied to have water diverted away from the Central valley.
No matter the reason behind the pumps being shut off, one thing is irrefutable: The water isn’t coming to the valley. Much of California relies on surface water collected by state and federal water projects. This year’s snow pack was a dismal 29 percent. The winter and spring rains didn’t come. After farmers struggled through receiving only 40 percent of their surface water allotment in 2012 and 20 percent in 2013, the Westlands water district that delivers water to the west valley received an unprecedented 0 percent of their 2014 allotment. Before this year, receiving zero surface water was inconceivable to the valley farmer. But now it’s happened. Now anything’s possible.
Andy Vidak, cherry farmer and senator for the 16th district, piggybacks Yarbro’s passion, and for the next 20 minutes goes deeply and conspiratorially political. He educates me on a long series of decisions made by a “small percentage of politicians who also hold the most power” in collaboration with radical environmentalists who have worked to destroy the farmers of the Central Valley. “This is perfect politics,” Vidak says. “The perfect war. This valley is conservative.” He contends big-city liberals are aware they can save the salmon, don the hero’s crown for environmentalists, all while eliminating conservative political opposition.
I respectfully suggest that one of the most productive agricultural valleys in the world couldn’t possibly be sacrificed in the name of politics — there’s a population base, functioning towns.
“No,” Vidak counters. “People in New York or Boise, Idaho, don’t care where their produce comes from.” The valley of farmers could go away, and so long as the product came from elsewhere no one would care.
He tells me a story of a local food bank. It was mid-summer and the men in line would be working if so much land wasn’t left unfarmed due to the water crisis. If that wasn’t bad enough, he noticed the food bank was handing out cans of carrots grown in China.
Beyond the salmon runs, Jim and Russ tell me about the delta smelt, a three-inch fish on the edge of extinction. Environmentalists claim the powerful pumps that send water to the Central Valley are killing the smelt. The plummeting fish population, and a lawsuit through the Endangered Species Act, has all but shut down the pumps. From the perspective of both environmentalists and the state, they’re managing for the longterm. As in, if they divert water from salmon or smelt, they may never recover. Ever. While the farmers will eventually be okay. For a time, they’ll have to make do with less.
Jim and Russ have no fight with the fish. They simply believe blame is misplaced. In their argument, Jim and Russ speak like professors, evenhanded and thorough. They show me maps and graphs, articles highlighted and annotated, findings from a scientist at U.C. Berkeley, attempting to validate their theory that it’s not the pumps killing the fish, but raw sewage from Sacramento’s regional treatment plant.