Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Homework for Greens: Critique "California's Water Wars" by Victor Davis Hanson

Editor's Note: Wes Rolley, a onetime Goldwater Republican from Arizona, often says, Greens come by many paths to the Green Party.

Our challenge as Green Party women and men is to find the right words, metaphors, and narratives to apply our key values to our current global problems, especially environmental problems.

I am a Black man who was once a "good Democrat." Today I emphatically reject Barack Obama and partisan Democrats, including inner-city Democrats who look like me. In my insistence on total rejection of all mid-20th Century clich├ęs and slogans of "liberals" and "conservatives" I ask others to do no more than what I try to do myself.

About Victor Davis Hanson -- Military historian and classics professor at Cal State, Fresno. A "Senior Fellow" at the Hoover Institute, he has written essays, editorials, and reviews for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the International Herald Tribune, the New York Post, National Review, American Heritage, Policy Review, Commentary, National Review, the Wilson Quarterly, the Weekly Standard, Daily Telegraph, the Washington Times, and City Journal.

See below Hanson's analysis of California's "water wars" published in the influential Sunday Los Angeles Times. Here's my Homework for Greens: critique Hanson's analysis and post comments applying the 10 Key Values of the Green Party.

Published by The Los Angeles Times, Sunday, August 7, 2011 California's Water Wars
By Victor Davis Hanson

California's water wars aren't about scarcity. Even with 37 million people and the nation's most irrigation-intensive agriculture, the state usually has enough water for both people and crops, thanks to the brilliant hydrological engineering of past Californians. But now there is a new element in the century-old water calculus: a demand that the state's inland waters flow as pristinely as they supposedly did before the age of dams, reservoirs and canals. Only that way can California's rivers, descending from their mountain origins, reach the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta year-round. Only that way, environmentalists say, can a 3-inch delta fish be saved and salmon runs from the Pacific to the interior restored.

Such green dreams are not new to California politics. But their consequences, in this case, have been particularly dire: rich farmland idled, workers laid off and massive tax revenues forfeited.

You can learn an important fact about the water wars simply by driving the width of California's vast Central Valley, home to a large chunk of the state's $14-billion farm export business. What the drive teaches you is that there is no single Central Valley agriculture. Rather, the state is divided longitudinally, right down its middle, into two farming landscapes. These regions — the east and west sides of the Central Valley — differ not only in the crops they grow but also in the availability of water.

Start with the east side, which looks like a verdant, well-tended park from the air, thanks to the Sierra Nevada, which each spring sends copious snowmelt into the rivers that flow into the Central Valley.

Proximity to this guaranteed runoff from the Sierra explains why the east side's small towns favored permanent orchards and vineyards, which represented more than a single year's investment, rather than annual row crops, beef and dairy. In the early 20th century, power companies and the state improved on what nature had bestowed, tapping the massive snow runoff with an ingenious system of dams and gravity-fed canals that channeled the stored water to farmland below.

To this day, gravity-fed irrigation usually supplies the east side with enough summer runoff for its crops. But in rare drought seasons, farmers have a second resource: an enormous aquifer, originally perhaps as large as a billion acre-feet, with a water table close to the surface. The water is good and the cost of pumping cheap.

The far larger, far more fragile west side of the valley is a different story. It is too distant from the Sierra to easily tap much of the snow runoff. And the water table can be more than 1,000 feet underground.

Until the 1960s, this vast interior land was sparsely populated, mostly unfarmed and owned by large ranching concerns. But then the federal and state governments, in a series of complex partnerships, built the Central Valley Project and the California State Water Project — sprawling networks of dams, pumping stations and canals sending water from the north more than 400 miles south. Once west side farmland was brought into irrigated production, it proved to be some of the world's most fertile, and a multibillion-dollar farming industry was born from desert.

That industry, however, was dominated by massive corporate and family-held operations. Even as they found ways to produce an ever-greater variety of crops, they came under attack, particularly from California's vocal left, which harped that taxpayers were subsidizing corporate farming — that the $130 and more that farmers were charged per acre-foot of water represented far less than it cost to build and maintain the irrigation system. More recently, environmentalists have argued that diversion of the northern rivers degraded the ecology of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

In late summer 2007, a federal judge in Fresno ruled in favor of an environmentalist lawsuit demanding that the government curtail water deliveries to the west side 80% and more. The suit involved salmon and the 3-inch delta smelt. The number of smelt in the delta had plummeted over the years, the environmentalists claimed, because water projects had diverted too much northern water. The solution, they argued, was to shut down the irrigation pumps.

So, in 2008 and 2009, water deliveries to farmers were drastically reduced. Chaos followed. Thousands of acres of crops were idled. Farmworkers were laid off. In some cases, newly developed orchards and vineyards on the west side died — often near the frequently traveled I-5, where thousands of passing motorists daily saw dead trees and signs erected by angry landowners proclaiming a man-made dust bowl.

Farmers are resourceful people. Some were able to switch to drought-resistant crops; others had reserves to pay the exorbitant costs of pumping scarce groundwater. Still others purchased irrigation supplements from east side canals. A variety of factors, including spiraling agricultural prices, helped them hang on, and in the winter of 2009 they got a lucky break: California entered one of its periodic wet cycles. The result is that, though the state certainly lost hundreds of millions of dollars in agricultural revenue, California will probably still export a record $14 billion in farm commodities in 2011.

At the end of my frequent drives across the state, I generally descend into the environmentalists' stronghold, the San Francisco Bay Area. Here, particularly at Stanford University and UC Berkeley, much of the environmental research and ideological advocacy took place that put the salmon and the smelt ahead of agribusiness.

California lakes and canals are a testament to our fathers' using nature to bring water, power and prosperity to the Central Valley. The state's visionary engineers and politicians saw the massive federal west side irrigation projects as the logical 20th century successors to smaller state and local enterprises that had irrigated the east side in the 19th century. But today, coastal scientists have tired of such visions. They consider them destroyers of nature, not catalysts of wealth, so they use their academic expertise to thwart them.

The smelt and the salmon are now back in court, thanks to a hypothesis that Bay Area wastewater, not just river diversions and massive delta pumps, is also to blame for their still diminished numbers. U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger has approved a temporary compromise that tries, in wet years like this one, to grant farmers up to 85% of their contracted water deliveries. The deal has made environmentalists happy, since it keeps the rivers flowing to the sea. The farmers are less happy, reasoning that if they're getting little more than three-quarters of their deliveries during one of the wettest seasons on record, they'll surely receive even less in the inevitable drier years to come.

But in today's California — with vast Democratic majorities in the Legislature, statewide officeholders mostly Democratic, and a delegation to Congress that's also largely Democratic — there is almost no chance of restoration of the original 100% delivery contracts, no matter what weather the future brings. When the wet cycle passes, thousands of acres on the west side of the Central Valley will again become idle until Californians accept that unused farmland is a luxury that a struggling state can no longer afford.


Martin Zehr said...

"the brilliant hydrological engineering of past Californians"

this brilliant engineering is what feeds the neverending water wars in California because no one defines the parameters of their own water supplies. where does my water supply end and where does my neighbor's water supply begin?

The second thing is the inability to establish regional long-term plans in the coastal regions to utilize desalination of imported fresh water supplies. Lack of foresight and long-term planning and access to billion of dollars leads a non-water related Legislature to feed the pig.

Finally,instream flow as an environmental beneficial use take out water from use, not minnows. With a "population that
is growing by about 600,000 a year" we are in no position to refuse to utilize the resource unless we have a solution to population growth. California Water Plan Update 2005, Chapter 4

Martin Zehr said...

CORRECTION 2ND PARAGRAPH, 1ST SENTENCE: The second thing is the inability to establish regional long-term plans in the coastal regions to utilize desalination of ocaenic waters.

Martin Zehr said...

statewide, environmental flows accounted for nearly 50 percent of both gross and net water use in the 1998–2005 period and about 40 percent for agriculture and 10 percent for the urban sector. In net terms, agriculture accounts for more than three-fifths
of the total (62%), urban uses 16 percent, and environmental uses 22 percent.


Alex Walker said...

Good work, Martin! This is exactly the kind of thing I was looking for. Your statement:

"The second thing is the inability to establish regional long-term plans in the coastal regions to utilize desalination of oceanic water supplies. Lack of foresight and long-term planning and access to billion of dollars leads a non-water related Legislature to feed the pig."

See, that's a point I can use in Los Angeles -- the ignorance and indifference of the local Democratic Party Machine leads to the waste of both money and water.

Consider this point:

"we are in no position to refuse to utilize the resource unless we have a solution to population growth."

I agree, but this is far too delicate to be handed off to a bunch of ham-handed Republicans. According to the 2010 census, my community in Los Angeles has actually been losing people. Of course, Democratic Party Machine Bosses all cry that this is a terrible thing, maybe even the work of some satanic conspiracy. It needs to argued that improved sustainability and a better quality of life for families who choose to stay could be the best thing that ever happened to L.A.