10.25.2011 0

Something fishy

By Rebekah Rast — You know you’ve struck a nerve when a federal judge refers to a scientist based on their testimony as a “zealot” or “untrustworthy as a witness.”

But that is exactly what U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger said in a court transcript after Jennifer Norris, a scientist from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, presented her evidence, along with Frederick V. Feyrer of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

What was this particular case about? A two-inch fish called a delta smelt.

But farmers in the Central Valley of California — an area that is one of the world’s largest exporters of agricultural products — would tell you the case is much bigger and carries much more weight than just a two-inch fish.

The war between farmers in this region of California and the government didn’t start over a small fish. It started over water distribution throughout the state. And though this latest hearing was in September, this water war is an ever-continuing saga.

Much of the Central Valley’s water is pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the Central Valley Project (CVP) to provide water to more than 600 family-owned farms, which produce more than 60 high quality commercial food and fiber crops sold for the fresh, dry, canned and frozen food markets. This happens through contracts between Westlands Water District, a water supplier for farmers in the area, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is an expansive in¬land river delta and estuary in northern California. This is no small water project as the Delta River provides about half of the state’s drinking water.

The government wants water to be retained in the Delta to protect fish like the delta smelt and other salmon species. However, not allowing water in the Delta to be shipped south could cut water supply to the San Joaquin Valley, Central California, by 300,000 acre feet.

Because this is an ongoing case, with the federal government using the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to protect the salmon and delta smelt, farmers have already been forced to take severe cuts in their water distribution.

Since farmers don’t know one year to the next how much water they will receive, so they must make the difficult decision of what to plant and what once-productive farmlands to leave fallow.

This not only affects the prosperity and livelihood of these farmers, their families and entire communities, but the world’s food supply as well. Some farm communities in the Central Valley struggle with unemployment rates as high as 20 percent, which should come as no surprise since more than 50,000 people live and work in these communities dependent on the agricultural economy.

“California got almost 200 percent of rainfall this year, and farmers are getting almost all of their water allocations, but there is no certainty that they will get water next year,” says Richard Pombo, former Chairman on the House Committee on Natural Resources. “This has affected their decision-making. Some only planted half their acres because they didn’t know if the water would come.”

The federal government will be quick to point out, as former Chairman Pombo said, these farmers are receiving most of their allocated water, much more in fact than years past. But the problem is farmers don’t know if that same percentage of water will be available to them next year. Like all sustainable businesses, if your resources are unknown for the future, you will be limited with what you can do.

In the case of these farmers, banks will not give them loans for their crops because they can’t guarantee their water supply. Therefore, no capital equals limited productivity.

“This is a regulatory drought,” Pombo states. “More water is being diverted to the north to save a fish, an endangered species, and the situation is becoming more permanent.”

Meaning farmers need to figure out ways to feed much of the world with less and less water.
Pombo explains that in 1992 the federal government passed a law that took away a percentage of water for agriculture, but farmers learned to live with it. However, the last five to six years the federal government has used the ESA to take away even more water.

When Federal Judge Wanger ripped apart the testimonies of the federal scientists he was frustrated with their approach. The Contra Costa Times in California reports, “In 2007, Wanger ruled that regulations in place to protect Delta smelt from going extinct were not working and needed to be strengthened.”

But when the federal government rewrote the rules they rerouted so much water to the north of the state it caused a government-imposed drought for Central Valley farmers. Therefore California water agencies sued to block the new federal government rules.

“Wanger said that until that time, the scientists had testified that weakening the rule would only represent a lost opportunity to help Delta smelt, ‘but nobody said that it would extinguish the species or that it would cause irreparable harm,’ ” the paper quoted Wanger as saying.

He continued, “Now, they come in and say, ‘If you don’t do this, it’s going to extinguish the species.’ ”

It is well known that this Administration takes great care to protect the environment and all species, even at a cost to innovation, independence and productivity.

But when you let livelihoods, communities and much of the nation’s and world’s food supply simply dry up in order to protect a species, you know there is something fishy going on.

Rebekah Rast is a contributing editor to Americans for Limited Government (ALG) and NetRightDaily.com. You can follow her on twitter at @RebekahRast.

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