California’s privileged species lord it over the endangered farmer.
ANYONE DOUBTING THAT OUR nation’s environmental and economic policies can get seriously out of whack from time to time need only look to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Located in California’s Central Valley, between the state’s capital city and Stockton, it is where the American, Mokelumne, Cosumnes, and Calaveras Rivers flow into the larger Sacramento and San Joaquin. It is also where the saddest agricultural saga since the Depression-era Dust Bowl is now playing, as the waters from those rivers flow beneath San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and out to sea. As they flow unimpeded to the Pacific, those waters are also washing out to sea the livelihoods of tens of thousands of farm workers and agricultural business owners. It is an economic as well as human tragedy.
This is a story about water, about its lack as well as its abundance. But it is also a story about the price we pay to protect the environment, and whether we are striking the right balance between nature and mankind. In the end, the question is whether people should exercise dominion over nature, or whether nature should lord over man. To most Americans, the answer is obvious: our capacity to make nature subservient to our needs justifies doing so, insomuch as we act as responsible stewards of the environment. But however obvious that might be to most people, the countervailing idea—that nature should take precedence over mankind—is being sown into a series of laws and regulations that are causing undue torment and distress.
The American West was created, it is fair to say, by mankind taming nature and using it for his own purpose. That is how the San Joaquin Valley over time became the most productive agricultural region in the world. Massive and expensive irrigation and public works projects captured the waters in the San Joaquin River Delta to transform a desert into a paradise, providing much of the fruits and vegetables and dairy products Americans consume. Millions more acre-feet of water are diverted each year to the state’s coastal population centers from these and other rivers, like the Colorado. By damming and diverting mighty rivers, and reshaping the landscape all throughout the American West, the federal government allowed Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco to bloom into the cities we know today.
That is the irony of California: a state that is Valhalla for environmentalists and the home base for the green movement is an affront to—and perversion of—nature. California is an artificially constructed paradise. The Golden State owes its golden existence largely to mammoth engineering feats representing mankind’s ingenuity and triumph over the natural realm. It’s not just Hoover Dam, that wonder of the modern world, but dozens of less famous man-made dams and lakes and reservoirs, with names like Glen Canyon and Parker and Havasu and Link River, that help reshape the landscape to provide water and power to California’s faraway population centers. The state could not sustain its giant cities or its astoundingly fertile agricultural sector without them. Today’s California, that greenest of American states, is itself testimony to man bending nature to his purpose.
NATURE, OR AT LEAST ITS SELF-STYLED advocates, is striking back. Its cudgel is the federal Endangered Species Act and supporting California statutes wielded on behalf of fish such as the tiny delta smelt. In 1993, the delta smelt was listed as threatened under the ESA. And with that designation, litigious environmental groups went to court. Filing lawsuit after lawsuit on behalf of this or that supposedly endangered quarry, they aim to dismantle the infrastructure of California’s State Water Project (SWP) and the federal Central Valley Project (CVP). Those two projects’ dams, reservoirs, canals, waterways, aqueducts, and pumps deliver the life-giving water supporting the state’s agriculture and supplying its major cities.
The greens have had some success. In 2007, U.S. district judge Oliver Wanger ruled that the pumping that annually sent about 6 million acre-feet of water to Kern County and beyond was threatening the delta smelt’s existence by disrupting water flows for the fall spawning season. Citing the protections accorded by the Endangered Species Act, he ordered pumping for agricultural uses curtailed by one-third until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could evaluate the situation. After studying the issue for more than a year, the USFWS determined last December that pumping by the SWP and CVP “was likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the delta smelt and adversely modify its critical habitat.” The agency issued plans to keep Judge Wanger’s restrictions in place. According to Tulare County supervisor Allen Ishida, “California was forced to let 660,000 acrefeet of its freshwater supplies run out to the ocean. That was enough water to supply the entire Silicon Valley for two years.”
Further curbs may come, on behalf of the delta smelt as well as other species. The USFWS and the California Fish and Game Commission are moving forward with threatened and endangered designations for Chinook salmon, steelhead, and the longfin smelt, presaging further water reductions for agriculture.
The result of these irrigation pump shutdowns is that hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland are being forced out of production. Kern County authorities estimated that 145,000 of the 850,000 acres that are typically irrigated were idled or under-irrigated last year. The loss was pegged at $100 million in the county alone. A study by UC-Davis estimated San Joaquin Valley farm revenue losses to range from $482 million to $647 million. Total California agricultural economic losses could hit $3 billion this year.
But those are just abstract financial numbers. Behind those figures are real people, farmers and business owners and families who are losing livelihoods and are being forced to uproot and flee. The UC-Davis study conservatively suggested 24,000 to 32,000 Central Valley jobs were destroyed by environmental rulings designed to protect endangered wildlife. It further estimated job losses could approach 80,000 or more if restrictions intensified. Communities are withering for a government-imposed lack of water. It is little exaggeration to say that the farmers of the most valuable farming region in the nation are facing extinction.
IS THAT WHAT THE Endangered Species Act was designed to accomplish? In the 36 years since President Nixon signed the ESA into law (its chief congressional sponsors were Rep. John Dingell, D-MI, and the future Abscam crook, Sen. Harrison Williams, D-NJ), an entire federal and state government apparatus has sprung forth to provide protections to creatures like the bald eagle and the grizzly bear. More than 1,300 species of animals, fish, and plants have been designated either “endangered” or “threatened.” Certainly, there have been some preservation successes, notably with iconic animals like our national bird or Smoky the Bear’s cousins.
But while the bald eagle and the grizzly are the poster children of ESA protection, they are the exception and not the rule. Most species for whose preservation the power of government has been harnessed are ones whose loss few would mourn, or even notice. How many tears, for instance, would be shed if the rock gnome lichen disappeared, not to mention the dwarf wedgemussel or the Comal Springs dryopid beetle? Or the delta smelt? And yet court decisions and other regulatory moves are being made on behalf of these and other creatures in ways that present significant hardship for landowners. Whether depriving Central Valley farmers of contractually entitled water or placing restrictions on landowners’ use of their own properties, endangered species regulations end up hamstringing humans for the benefit of certain plants, fish, and animals that few have heard of and even fewer care about.
Sometimes such hamstringing is merely a costly irritant. Case Western Reserve University law professor Jonathan Adler has noted, “Under the ESA, individual Americans have been prevented from building homes, plowing fields, cutting trees, clearing brush, and repairing fences—all on private land.”
In other instances, it can be tragic. According to Adler, “The federal government has even barred private landowners from clearing firebreaks to protect their homes from fire hazards.” In 1993, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service forbade residents of California’s Riverside County from clearing firebreaks around their homes for fear of disturbing the endangered Stephens’ kangaroo rat (despite the fact state authorities required them to do so as a fire protection measure). When wildfires whipped through the Southern California community, nearly two dozen homes were destroyed. The case of the Central Valley farmers is a similar—and needless—calamity.
The problem, says Tulare County’s Ishida, is not the courts or even activist judges. “The problem is the courts are being forced to base their decisions on laws that have not been amended or changed in decades. The environmentalists have skillfully used such laws as the Central Valley Project Improvement Act and the Endangered Species Act so that judges have no alternative but to order massive releases of water.”
Ishida recently told a congressional panel that since the passage of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act in 1992 (roughly the same time that the delta smelt was listed as threatened), the state of California has redirected more than 3 million acre-feet of water that used to serve cities and farms. Now that water supports fisheries and habitats. Often it just goes out to sea, completely unused for any of the many purposes for which a thirsty state is desperate to use it.
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