Drought of Candor
By Lloyd G. Carter
The House Subcommittee on Water and Power, now under the control of Republicans, will hold a field hearing in Fresno April 11 with the provocative title “Creating Jobs by Overcoming Man-Made Drought: Time for Congress to Listen and Act.”
The phrase “man-made drought,” like the terms Obamacare, death tax and death panel, was cooked up by political consultants with the intent to trigger an emotional response from listeners, rather than intellectual analysis. Use of the phrase began surfacing in 2009 when water deliveries to the western San Joaquin Valley were significantly reduced, thanks to reduced rainfall and snowpack and deteriorating ecological conditions in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, triggering the Endangered Species Act.
It was “1984” author George Orwell who wrote that political language “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” That is the case with the phrase man-made drought.
While congressional committee field hearings are supposed to be impartial fact-gathering exercises, they are more often simply dog-and-pony shows where the local congressmen or favored special interests get to grandstand in front of the local TV station cameras and expert witnesses who actually have something informative to say are relegated to the end of the day when the cameras are long gone.
Dam booster Rep. Tom McClintock, (CA-04), whose fourth congressional district encompasses the northeast corner of California from Lake Tahoe to the Oregon border, is the new chairman of the water subcommittee. He wants to downsize government except when it comes to taxpayer-funding of new water projects.
In McClintock’s view, the federal government is to blame for the fictional “man-made drought” which commenced a few years ago when Delta fishery populations began plummeting rapidly, coinciding with a mild natural drought.
In a press release announcing the Fresno hearing, McClintock claims “deliberate diversions by the federal government of over 303 billion gallons of water away from the breadbasket of America cost tens of thousands of farm workers their jobs, inflicted up to 40 percent unemployment rates in the region, fallowed more than 150,000 acres of the most fertile farmland in our nation, and forced up the price of groceries across the country. The facts we gather from this hearing will be instrumental as we begin the process to rescind government policies at the root of the San Joaquin Valley’s misery.”
First of all, the Midwest is the breadbasket of America, unless you can make bread from tomatoes, almonds and grapes. Second, there was not 40 percent unemployment in the “region,” whatever McClintock means by “region.” There was a 2009 estimate of 40 percent unemployment in the small Fresno County town of Mendota, a figure which was quickly discredited even by its authors. Most economists agreed unemployment in the San Joaquin Valley was attributable to the collapse of the housing market. Indeed, unemployment in Mendota (McClintock’s “region”) is now higher than it was during the natural drought year of 2009. Third, much of the “fertile” farmland McClintock mentions is marginal, salted up land in an area with no drainage for agricultural waste water. Fourth, there is no evidence grocery prices were “forced up” nationally. Westlands Water District, with about $1 billion in annual gross revenues for 600 growers, accounts for only one-quarter of one percent of America’s $375 billion annual gross farm income. McClintock also conveniently forgets it was the federal government (i.e. the American taxpayers) which built the Cadillac water delivery system for Westlands in the first place, shipping water hundreds of miles to an alkali desert.
And, of course, most farm work in the San Joaquin Valley is done under harsh conditions, with minimum wages, by undocumented workers. Grower concern for the welfare of farmworkers is evidenced by the Ag industry’s long-time efforts to block reforms such as providing field workers portable toilets, shade and drinking water in the blistering summer heat of the Valley, which annually results in several deaths due to heat stroke.
McClintock bloviates by claiming the entire San Joaquin Valley was in “misery” due to the “man-made drought.” In fact, not one acre of land on the East Side of the Valley was idled the last few years due to lack of water. What McClintock really means by “man-made drought” is that the growers in the Westlands don’t like being at the end of the bucket line in the Central Valley Project, where senior water rights holders get their needs met first, along with the ecological and water quality needs of the Delta.
When Westlands growers claimed they got only 10 percent or 20 percent of their “allocations” or “allotments” two years ago, people presumably thought the federal U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was required to deliver the amount stated in the federal water delivery contracts. In fact, the amount identified in those contracts (for Westlands and other federal water districts in the Western Valley) is a “wish list,” or requested amount, of water that growers always knew would be available only in a very wet year, even absent Delta pumping restrictions. Reclamation never promised to deliver the full contract amount every year. All the federal contracts state explicitly that the Bureau is required to meet its Endangered Species and state-mandated Delta protection standards for fish and salinity control.
It is true that some cutbacks in west side water deliveries are due to the call for more fresh water in the Delta to save the salmon fishery (which creates a high protein food and livelihoods for thousands of Americans) and, yes, the lowly Delta Smelt. It is true that urban pollution, downstream agricultural runoff, predatory invasive species, and industrial pollution have all contributed to making the Delta a toilet bowl death trap for fish.
But even if the Endangered Species Act were not in play, the Bureau of Reclamation still has a duty (under Section 8 of Reclamation law) to comply with orders from the State Water Resources Control Board, which is under a public trust duty to protect the Delta and the counties where the water originates. But for the past three decades the State Water Board, unless prodded by lawsuits, has done little to halt the Delta’s ecological decline.
Here is how the Fresno hearing will go. Rep. Devin Nunes, if he behaves true to form, will label all environmentalists and San Franciscans as Satan’s Children or worse. Reps. Jeff Denham and Jim Costa (ironically, Costa is loathed by many Westlands growers in his own district) will prophesy utter disaster for California’s economy unless Westlands gets much more water. The truth is that the Valley’s agricultural economy the last few years has suffered only a modest dip in income, despite drought, natural and man-made. The Valley agriculture industry’s fundamental problem the last few decades has not been lack of water but low prices due to oversupply of one commodity after another. Indeed, some West Side growers are beginning to sell off their water supplies at fat profits. Water is the new cash crop.
To further skew any semblance of impartiality at the Fresno hearing, McClintock has decreed minority subcommittee Democrats will be limited to two witnesses. Naturally, none of the congressmen crying that the sky is falling for Westlands will address the moral dilemma posed by growers getting higher quality irrigation water than the fouled drinking water provided farm workers. Or that industrial agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley, which has been irrigated by publicly-funded dam-and-canal projects for well over half a century, has produced the poorest place in America while absentee landholders reap huge profits (and generous crop, water and power subsidies) year after year.
Most speakers at the Fresno hearing will all tout the $12 billion bond measure for the controversial Peripheral Canal/Tunnel which will be on 2012 statewide ballot and Rep. McClintock will probably again promote the white elephant doomed Auburn Dam project. In California’s water world, some things never change. The hearing will result in no legislation to protect Northern California rivers and fisheries, Native American water rights, the salmon industry and the deteriorating Delta. In truth, the Fresno hearing probably won’t even please Westlands officials.
As George Orwell said, politics (especially water politics) “is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.” The Fresno field hearing will prove it