On February 14, 2014, President Barack Obama arrived on Air Force One in Fresno, California, with Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein aboard. They helicoptered to a 30-minute community roundtable in Firebaugh, 45 miles to the west. A half-hour motorcade then moved northwest to a Los Banos field for a photo op and official televised statement.
Joined by Gov. Jerry Brown, the President linked California’s lack of rain to climate change and carbon pollution.
The Democratic entourage, ringed by Secret Service, posed in the fallow field for Associated Press and the television cameras. It had no clue how to solve California’s water problems. It could have been doing rain dances, for all the good it was doing.
The fact is, the four were doing rain dances for MSM — all of them — Obama, Boxer, Feinstein, and Brown. This was wildly expensive, echt Obama, media spectacle.
“Everybody, from farmers to residential areas to the north of California and the south of California and every place in between, as well as the entire Western region, are going to have to start rethinking how we approach water for decades to come,” Obama said with trademark grandeur.
“Unless and until we do more to combat carbon pollution that causes climate change, this trend is going to get worse, and the hard truth is even if we do take action on climate change, carbon pollution has built up in our atmosphere for decades. The planet is slowly going to keep warming for a long time to come,” he added. “We’re going to have to stop looking at these disasters as something to wait for. We’ve got to start looking at these disasters as something to prepare for, to anticipate.”
The whole grim show took three hours and five minutes. Air Force One took off again from Fresno Airport, mission accomplished, heading toward a Palm Springs golf holiday in the super-irrigated Coachella Valley. Obama met that evening with King Abdullah II of Jordan at Sunnylands, the legendary Annenberg estate in Rancho Mirage, to discuss the Syrian crisis and then emerging ISIS threat.
No one disputes California has a growing water crisis. A severe, multi-year drought challenges the state’s agronomy and the century-old allocation system that lies behind it.
But the White House instead is using drought to pitch Green cosmologies, not make overdue reforms. Obama and his supporters in the environmental community hold weather events such as California’s extended drought to be “canaries” of global warming, already wreaking havoc all across the planet.
More than a year after the Obama field theater, nothing water-wise has changed. Central Valley rainfall has been extremely low. Good well water and depleted aquifers in the absence of new snowpack are prevailing worries as the rainy season comes to an end.
On March 19, to pacify riled California voters, Gov. Brown proposed $1.1 billion in emergency “drought relief” legislation, doing a rain dance of his own. Despite the fanfare, his plan merely re-shuffled designated funds for canal repair and flood control. Two days before, presumably to help citizens adopt a Green state of mind, the State Water Resources Control added an “expanded emergency regulation” so “restaurants and other food service establishments can only serve water to customers on request.”
Metro residents universally expect Sacramento and Washington, D.C. to provide them with clean, plentiful, and affordable water. High water bills, rationing, and stiff fines have already arrived. Water allotments are shrinking. The prospect of one-minute showers and dry faucets is politically unpopular.
On the other hand, cheap, easy food is U.S. federal policy and has been for decades. Escalating supermarket prices hit the middle class and elected politicians don’t like it.
California’s high-revenue harvests depend on reliable, subsidized federal and state water transported through a complex pumping and canal system to grow fruits and veggies in the desert. Moving farm water over great distances, especially during the long dry seasons, is only part of the story. The increase in perennial crops such as nuts and grapes —which take years to mature and need to be watered every year — makes agriculture more vulnerable to drought.
Only about 15 percent of California’s water use is residential. In the Bay Area and Los Angeles-San Diego metroplex, however, it soars to 60 percent, mostly for landscaping and pools, making the desert green and turquoise all year around. California’s population has grown from 10 million to 40 million since 1950. Close to two-thirds of the state’s population is bunched in a few water-dependent coastal counties.
Keep in mind, California’s high-revenue Central Valley agriculture rests on semi-luxury products. From Red Bluff to Bakersfield, big corporate farms and branded cooperatives — Blue Diamond almonds, Sun-Maid raisins, Sunkist citrus, and Sunsweet plums — are global farm operations that benefit from preferential water agreements.
California produces much of the nation’s protein, fruits, nuts, and vegetables. While foodies and nutritionists love the latter, all are super-water-intensive and expensive to produce. Ten percent of all California’s water consumption goes to the farming of almonds.
Nuts are California’s biggest cash crop, bigger than grapes or citrus. They need much more water than row-crop tomatoes or cotton, which in turn need a great deal more water than stay-alive staples like wheat or potatoes. Much California-style produce can be grown more cheaply in Mexico, Brazil, and Chile and imported into the U.S.
Agribusiness plays up California’s yeoman farmers, most who sold out or moved on a generation ago. It has a lot of money at risk in contracts and leases. Today’s landowners are usually absentees with acreage managed by corporations and worked by Mexican labor. To keep costs down, corporations must protect cheap farm water.
California faces a pricing problem more than it does a water shortage, as Bill Davidow and Michael S. Malone recently observed in the Wall Street Journal. Farm water comprises an estimated 80 percent of water used in the state, and it is mostly controlled by competing, sometimes interlocking, districts with obsolete or suspicious water claims. Los Angeles billionaire Stewart Resnick’s shady control of the Kern Water Bank and his water-hungry nut and citrus business called Paramount Farms in the dry southwest valley reflect the folly and favoritism of existing water-use agreements.
Agriculture’s substantial $40 billion contribution to the California economy is still less than 3 percent of state GDP. Rural California counties comprise a potent voting bloc in the state legislature and U.S. Congress, but less so every decade.
In 21st century California farmers and growers are losing political allies. Unlimited, subsidized, nearly free water used to cultivate low-water micro-climates is on its way to becoming a thing of the past. Openhanded irrigation agreements from Sacramento and Washington will lapse, be terminated, or get examined less broadly in court.
Less water for rice in Colusa County? More expensive alfalfa for the state’s 700,000 horses and their owners? Fewer pistachio groves in Coalinga? Times change. Beef and milk (i.e., protein) producers are already relocating to naturally watered territory in the Midwest.
Public interest in affordable, healthy food is understandably profound. So is clean water for millions of Californians who cannot sink a well in their backyard. Keeping reservoirs full, wells flowing, and groundwater clean have been challenges in California since pioneer days.
These are not Green or partisan causes, and reforms depend in part on federal policy. A White House that has hijacked drought to serve its ideological ends makes sound water allocation more difficult to achieve.
Low-priced, abundant food and cheap household water face inevitable tradeoffs in the future. California struggles over water management, farm practices, and the limits of its natural geography are just beginning. Water shortages worldwide portend higher food prices and battles over arable land if long-term weather patterns continue.