California’s San Joaquin Valley has fed the world for decades. From almonds to raisins and figs to oranges, Fresno County consistently wins the title of #1 in agricultural production for all counties in the United States. But today this position is threatened by the one commodity upon which the entire planet depends: water. And the nation is beginning to take notice.
In a CBS 60 Minutes segment aired yesterday, December 27th, San Joaquin Valley west side farmers were interviewed in front of fallow fields and orchards being ripped out and sent to the chipper. This is occurring today because federal Judge Oliver Wanger in Fresno ruled that the massive pumps which draw water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta near Tracy were killing a threatened fish species, the Delta smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus), which is found nowhere else on earth. To put it simply, under the federal Endangered Species Act, the government may not allow, through its action or inaction, a species to become extinct, even when numerous other similar species exist in the U.S. and all over the world.
Here in the San Joaquin Valley, water is by far the biggest issue facing our citizens. The storage of hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of natural snow-melt behind massive dams built decades ago is not enough to satisfy the needs of California’s population today. Couple that with three years of below-average winter snowfall in the Sierra Nevada, and we do have a real problem. However, the farmers interviewed for the 60 Minutes story were not affected by the natural cycles of wet and dry years, but by the federal court’s restrictions on the Delta pumps during the first half of 2009 to protect the Delta smelt.
It is interesting that Governor Schwarzenegger took the CBS crew to San Luis Reservoir, which was designed and built on the west side of the Valley to exclusively store pumped Delta water as opposed to natural mountain run-off as are a multitude of other dams built on the east side of the Valley. San Luis Reservoir’s low level this past fall (when the reservoir segment was filmed) was entirely due to the pumps being off or operated at low capacity earlier in the year, not a “drought” as the report would have viewers believe. On a trip past the same reservoir just before Christmas, it was apparent to my wife, Aletha, and me that the lake was being refilled – it didn’t look nearly as empty as when CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl commented on it. According to the California Department of Water Resources website, more than 800,000 acre-feet of water is being stored in San Luis as of today’s date – up from 473,257 acre-feet at this same time last year.
Central California’s historic wild rivers, expansive wetlands, Tulare Lake – drained by the end of the nineteenth century in order to grow cotton – and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta today bear little resemblance to what they were prior to 1849. Every major tributary to the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers (respectively California’s first and second longest rivers) was dammed long ago. The San Joaquin Valley – once a grassy plain (not a desert!) teeming with herds of antelope and elk, dotted with wetlands so expansive that the numerous waterfowl would darken the sun and mighty rivers that supported both fall and spring-run salmon by the millions feeding tens of thousands of Grizzly bears – is long gone. One only has to fly over the San Joaquin Valley to see that nearly every acre is neatly squared-off and that mankind has forever altered the terrain. For better or worse, the human impact is mightily apparent here. The word “significant” pales in the light of present-day reality and shutting off the water supply to a few hundred west side farmers is not even a drop in the enormous bucket of what it would take to re-create what was once here.
As stewards of this planet, we must decide which parts we will preserve for nature and which parts we must sacrifice so that the human species (Homo sapiens) may also survive. When looking for places to grow our nation’s food on U.S. soil, it makes sense to choose a unique region like California’s San Joaquin Valley, which annually enjoys more than 300 days of sunshine allowing for multiple crop rotations and incredibly fertile soil deposited here from the very mountain run-off that is today so fought-over. The Valley’s location directly adjacent to the Sierra Nevada – a mountain range that naturally sequesters, then releases, millions of acre-feet of pristine freshwater each year – has not only made it a farming region unparalleled in the history of the world, but also a national focal point in the ongoing battle between human and environmental needs.