California is reeling from the worst drought in modern history with an estimated economic loss of over $5B this year in agriculture, including milk production.
California, the 12th largest economy in the world, is blessed with fertile soil and a climate that produces nearly half of our nation’s fruits, nuts, vegetables, and dairy, besides being the largest domestic source of wine. Agricultural exports, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, exceeded $18 Billion in 2012.
While the lack of adequate rainfall the past three years and inadequate storage facilities are obvious reasons for the drought, overzealous and militant environmentalists in California have exacerbated the problem. The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is the single largest source of water in our state but our farming communities have been denied much of this water.
A three-inch fish, the delta smelt, has been at the center of the water debate, since the Obama administration invoked the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2009 to require diversion of water for preservation of the smelt and less use of the pumps to distribute the water south. According to the Pacific Legal Foundation, more than 81B gallons of water have been wasted due to these regulations—enough to cultivate 85,000 acres of farmland.
The irony is that evidence to justify the inclusion of the smelt in the ESA is debatable. In a piece by Scott Learn in The Oregonian, Garth Griffin, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) researcher, concedes that “smelt populations are unpredictable” and questions the smelt’s classification as endangered.
In a rare act of proposing sound policy, the House Republicans from California have unanimously introduced a bill H.R 3964 that would require the amount of water to be at the 800,000 acre-feet level required by the federal law. The Democrats are vehemently opposed to these proposals; including Governor Brown’s to build gigantic tunnels to facilitate the export of the delta’s water.
No right thinking person would argue against preserving and protecting nature and its creatures, both big and small, besides the air we breathe. However, such measures cannot be at the cost of people’s livelihoods or food supply. We have got to extend the boundaries of science to achieve reasonable environmental protections while still ensuring sustainable economic growth and prosperity. It would also be prudent to relax onerous environmental regulations temporarily to deal with the drought now.
Practical middle of the road solutions is what is needed to solve our water woes, not extremist and purist ideological rigidity. Sadly, the Democrats have refused to seize the middle road on this issue and surprisingly, the Republicans have.
Rameysh Ramdas, an S.F. Bay Area professional, writes as a hobby.
No, short term solutions are not the answer
Water wars in California are at least a 100 years old. The Central Valley project was a Depression Era canal system built to bring water to irrigate and grow crops.
There have been many environmental battles fought since then. One such is the Mono Lake (a lake in Mono County, CA) drainage caused by water diversion from the lake which caused severe habitat destruction. This was finally halted in the late 1970s by legal action.Since then the lake water has risen 13 feet and on the way to the legally mandated 20 feet. This slow process indicates the irreversibility of decisions made for short sighted gains with no thought to sustainability.
The latest in these wars is the delta smelt. This once abundant species is declining “due to record-high water diversions, pollutants, and harmful non-native species that thrive in the degraded delta habitat.” In 2007 during surveys conducted in the delta, too few fish were found indicating that the species was near extinction. This is a warning that other native species is on the decline. According to the Los Angeles Times, “twenty-nine known species once called the delta home” and twelve of those are extinct. Protectionary efforts will only marginally affect Central Valley land that is reeling under drought.
Due to the lack of pure water from rain, the state faces the huge issue of salination of the land which renders it fallow over a period of time. One primary cause for salinity is water pumped through canals and pipes from the rest of the state. Such water carries salt with it which remains permanently in the soil as the water molecules evaporate through transpiration or evaporation.
While the benefits of the canals built in 1930 and since have been reaped by the farmers and the state’s economy, longer term issues like salination and depletion of aquifers etc. have been ignored.
At the end of it all when the farms pass down from generation to generation they do so tax free, thanks to the estate tax laws that farmers, among others, have lobbied to enact. Such a cradle to grave subsidy system has perhaps trained the small group of about 64,000 farmers and families into politicizing their issues rather than trying to find sustainable solutions.
An oasis in this desert of reason can be found in Panoche district, where a San Francisco based company is using the Sun’s energy to desalinate drainage water into pure water at half the cost of traditional desalination plants. By using salty water from fallow land the solar arrays separate the salts from pure water that can be used for irrigation and human consumption while ridding the soil of the salts. While the water generated is about 60% more expensive than the highly subsidized Central Valley projects water it comes with no salts attached.
Perhaps it is time for the Central Valley to get on the path of sustainability and pull a Silicon Valley!
Mani Subramani works in the semi-conductor industry in Silicon Valley.