- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 27, 2009


California is in an uproar over water. Nearly a quarter-million acres’ worth of contracted federal irrigation deliveries have been cut from the big farms of the west side of the San Joaquin Valley in central California. The water in large part is being diverted to the salty San Francisco Bay and the delta to improve marine ecology.

The result of the cutbacks is that many crops in the San Joaquin Valley have gone unplanted. Farm income is down. Thousands of farm laborers are unemployed. Growers and workers are livid at environmentalists, federal bureaucrats and judges for worrying more about fish than about people and food-growing.

Environmentalists counter that the real cause of the cutoff is an ongoing drought. They argue there are too many claims on too little fresh water with no margin of safety in dry years like this one. The problem is not just saving tiny delta smelt or salmon, but a larger one of living within our means and not polluting our fragile ecosystem.

Emotion colors the arguments of both sides. The west side is not yet a “dust bowl,” as claimed on Fox News, and San Francisco Bay and the delta will not turn stagnant, as some environmentalists fret. The majority of west-side land is still farmed, and the bay is far cleaner than it was decades ago.

The crisis is not over an entire valley, but instead a sizable part of it without regular irrigation deliveries. For those farmers and workers whose livelihoods depend on that parched acreage, the result undeniably is catastrophic.

All this should remind us that Americans have developed a bad habit of avoiding tough choices. Californians could build more dams and more canals and farm with adequate irrigation, but that would mean fewer natural flowing rivers, fewer fish and saltier deltas.

Few, though, will honestly acknowledge that “I want 10,000 acres of almonds, but I realize that will mean a slightly saltier delta and less marine life,” or, on the flip side, “I vote for more delta smelt but understand that will mean fewer tomatoes.”

Instead of making these bad/worse decisions, we dream on about a natural California, with plenty of rain, stuffed with 36 million affluent residents (most of them crammed near Los Angeles or San Francisco).

Amnesiac federal officials and judges are just as unrealistic.

The problems with fish in San Francisco Bay Area water are not just because fresh river water is being sent to San Joaquin Valley farms.

Northern Californians - sewer districts, businesses and developers - also are dumping more treated wastewater and runoff into the delta and bay, and more fresh water thus is needed to flush it out. Yet it seems easier to cut short a few thousand farmers and farm workers than to order millions of Northern Californians to alter their habits.

It also was the federal government in the first place that, rightly or wrongly, built the dams, canals and pumps to provide the vast water transfers for farming. Once upon a time, the government saw public benefit in turning arid land into productive green farms.

So, naturally, the federal government also provided the crop and irrigation subsidies to encourage a few individuals to create a vast corporate agribusiness out of the former alkali wasteland of the valley’s west side. Now that its old dream of new productive farms, plentiful food and thousands of new jobs is realized, a different sort of bureaucracy and judiciary has the luxury to renege and question whether the investment was ever worth it.

Californians and Americans, of course, will still eat, no matter what happens to this water, as they still drive. But if we do not produce our own food and fuel, someone else will do it for us.

That means we will have to earn - or borrow - the necessary cash payments from somewhere to ensure our present standard of living. Good luck with that. Currently, the United States is running a $2 trillion annual deficit and a $32-billion-a-month trade deficit. California itself is trying to recover from a recent $42 billion annual budget shortfall.

Unless we cut our population or our appetites, each acre of food we idle in the United States - just like every barrel of oil we don’t pump - means we will import what we take for granted from somewhere else.

We can be sure that even if we find the money to pay those who sell us our imported food and fuel, they will produce it in a lot messier fashion than we can ever imagine - ensuring a poorer America and a dirtier planet all at once.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

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