Congress is Pursuing an Outright Water Grab on Behalf of The Top 1% of Agribusiness
By: Jane Wagner-Tyack and Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla
Restore the Delta
Congressmen McCarthy, Nunes and Denham’s piece (“Ending California’s man-made drought”) is full of errors and misrepresentations.
The recent drought is not man-made. History shows California experiences drought about a third of the time. Losses from the recent drought resulted not from endangered species protections but from decisions to plant permanent crops dependent on water deliveries that could never be guaranteed.
The original state and federal water project contracts promised farmers in the Delta and upstream watersheds that only surplus water would be exported from those areas. Five million acre-feet of water from North Coast rivers was also supposed to be added to the system. That never happened, but for over 20 years exporters kept taking more and more water anyway.
Even with reduced water deliveries, south Valley growers haven’t done badly. In 2010, at the end of a three-year drought, California had a record almond crop. California supplies 80% of the world’s almonds, with most of those exported to China and India. In spite of what the congressmen suggest, these aren’t crops that feed America. Americans also don’t eat cotton, another major, thirsty crop grown with export water.
A growing portion of export water isn’t growing food at all. It’s being sold for development in the desert. People with water rights make more money selling them than through the difficult and uncertain job of farming, especially on land so compromised by salts, boron, and selenium that it should never have been irrigated.
A 2011 study by California Water Research Associates found that 100,000 acres of land in Westlands Water District was retired beginning in 2002, well before the drought, because of severe salinity. No amount of water ever will make that land suitable for farming.
Research by University of the Pacific’s Dr. Jeffrey Michael has shown that joblessness in the southern San Joaquin Valley has increased from single to double digits since the 1960s. That’s when the Central Valley Project began to supply irrigation water, allowing for intensive, industrial agriculture that required seasonal labor. This region has had the highest unemployment rate in the U.S. even when there was plenty of surplus water in the Delta to send south.
Recent unemployment is tied to the housing and foreclosure collapse and the recession it caused. Low-skilled workers have been hit especially hard, but no more in the San Joaquin Valley than in other parts of the state, including the Delta.
Letting water flow to the ocean isn’t wasting water. In addition to providing necessary flows for fish in the Delta, outflows help flush salts out of south Delta waterways, keeping salinity down for growing crops on Delta’s prime farmland. Fresh water flowing out through the Bay also sustains ocean fisheries worth hundreds of millions of dollars to California’s economy. These fisheries are part of our food supply, and the food supply for Orcas.
The five-county Delta region supports over 1.8 million jobs, and Northern California supports hundreds of thousands more. Many of these jobs depend on reliable supplies of fresh water. Those jobs are of equal value to California as those of people in the southern San Joaquin Valley.
H.R. 1837 is an outright water grab – an attempt to subvert 150 years of California water rights law in order to further enrich the top one percent of agribusiness corporations. It will enable this small, but powerful group to control California’s water supply at the expense of Delta family farmers, fishermen, and California urban dwellers. It will empower the federal government to preempt California’s ability to manage its own water resources.
H.R. 1837 must be stopped before it becomes law.
Restore the Delta works in the areas of public education and outreach so that all Californians recognize the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta as part of California’s natural heritage, deserving of restoration.