They may as well dance to the rain gods.

Yes! This quote:

Long story short, the super-simple proposal you’ve developed for ending piracy has probably already been thought of, and probably has a host of problems that you haven’t considered.

This is especially true if the super simple proposal for fixing California water is END WATER SUBSIDIES TO AGRICULTURE. I actually support ending water subsidies for agriculture and instead providing direct subsidies designed to buy the form of agriculture I want. But it is really rare to hear discussions of that. Instead you get blog commentors shouting that water subsidies must end, with no discussion of what that would look like. The problem with an abrupt end to water-based subsidies is that those subsidies are old now. They’ve been going on for fifty or more years, and their existence means that some noticeable piece of the agricultural sector has come to depend on them.

Losing water-based subsidies abruptly would set off the ‘host of problems’ that would matter to real people. Grower’s land would be suddenly worth much less. Some growers would find the costs of water tip the balance, so that farming is no longer possible for them. I keep saying that subsidized water grows field crops that are the basis of cheap meat. I don’t care if cheap meat vanishes, but I think there are a whole bunch of people who think eating meat frequently contributes to their quality of life. Those are attenuated problems, and maybe you aren’t very sympathetic to growers who are all MULTINATIONAL BILLIONAIRE CORPORATIONS anyway. But the first people who are going to hurt, as I’ve been saying all along, are farmworkers.

We’re seeing that now, that when water leaves the ag sector farmworkers hurt first and worst. But, even as farmworkers have all my concern, I have to say that their march this week just kills me. Farmworkers are marching from their dying town to a reservoir as a way to lobby for “state money for dams and canals and the lifting of pumping restrictions at the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that were imposed to comply with environmental laws”. They’re deliberately evoking Cesar Chavez. I find that march to be a horrible perversion and wish they weren’t doing it.

I have to assume that to the marchers it feels like a meaningful protest that will draw attention and aid, but I can’t see how it will work. The primary problem is that they are asking for the wrong remedy. Specifically what they want is to lift the ESA restrictions on the pumps that protect salmon and smelt. I don’t really have much claim on Chavez’s legacy, but I have to say that it breaks my heart a little to have farmworkers using his tactics to shift the drought burden to the only entities in our water system that are suffering worse (farmworkers have it bad, but they are not physically ground to pieces by the pumps) and have less voice or capacity to escape the consequences of drought (fish, however, must be in drying rivers and cannot move to another).

That aside, this march doesn’t pressure anyone who can respond. In Chavez’s original marches, farmworkers and boycotts could pressure growers for better wages and working conditions. Those improvements were something that growers could give, or legislators could legally require. But knowingly breaking the ESA as a result of this march? Who could do that? Pres. Obama could call a God Squad, which I hope he doesn’t do. A judge or the state legislature could try, but the resulting litigation would last longer than this growing season. The Department of Fish and Game could reverse all their findings that this pumping regime kills fish that are already nearly extinct, but that would require some pretty surprising new scientific studies. So long as the ESA holds, we can’t do what farmworkers are marching for, which is to send more water to the farms that would employ those farmworkers.

The farmworkers have a different remedy, but to my regret, they aren’t asking for it. They don’t need water to go to those specific farms to get those specific jobs. They need some jobs, or failing that, they need money to live on and to transition out of a farming-dependent life. That’s something the state could do. They aren’t asking for it, though. I don’t know if it is politically impossible (because how would you take care of the farmworker victims of the drought without attending to the other victims of the recession) or if they haven’t thought of it (because the idea of the state taking care of its citizens has become a joke) or if they are too self-identified with the some bullshit rugged individualism made even worse by a western farming mythos.

I’ll say this, too. I don’t know this to be the case, but I get a yucky feeling that this march was cynically engineered by politically savvy water districts. I hate that feeling. It would mean that sophisticated large water users manipulated the hurt and restless energy of farmworkers and their desperate families and used the legacy of Cesar Chavez as cover to attack the Endangered Species Act. If that happened (and of course I’ll never know) it was a shitty thing to do.   Making this march about dams, canals and running the pumps more won’t get farmworkers the help they need.  All  the desperation and hope they put into the march will be disappointed.  That’s another disappointment they don’t need.

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under Agriculture, Drought

4 responses to “They may as well dance to the rain gods.

  1. Brock Landers

    Losing water-based subsidies abruptly would set off the ‘host of problems’ that would matter to real people. Grower’s land would be suddenly worth much less. Some growers would find the costs of water tip the balance, so that farming is no longer possible for them. I keep saying that subsidized water grows field crops that are the basis of cheap meat. I don’t care if cheap meat vanishes, but I think there are a whole bunch of people who think eating meat frequently contributes to their quality of life.

    Um, those strike me as exactly the consequences that are anticipated (and largely desired) by people who call for an end to agricultural water subsidies.

  2. onthepublicrecord

    If they are, especially the result of end-of-cheap-meat, then I’m in agreement with them. But I’m afraid that most people somehow think that ending water subsidies would have great results for re-directing agriculture but not touch their own lives, that other sources of cheap meat would fill that gap.

  3. LizardBreath

    I think [blogger’s real name]’s right. A couple of times at Unfogged, we’ve had conversations where I’ve talked about meat as a luxury, and that I didn’t think that social changes that made meat too expensive to eat at the rate Americans do now would be a real hardship, so long as people could still afford sufficient non-meat food. And while I didn’t say that as gently as I might have, wow did it piss people off — while I wasn’t keeping close track of who jumped all over me for it, I’d expect that at least some of them also advocate ‘ending subsidized water for agriculture’, which is exactly the sort of policy I was talking about.

  4. A4

    We’ve ended subsidies before; peanuts and tobacco both had quota programs, and don’t now. Those were both quotas, of course, but still. Like CA water, the value was capitalized into land value. In those cases, the end came with a major buyout of the quota holders.

    That may not be feasible with CA water, because the scale is so huge. I tend to be pessimistic on major regime changes, though. In the case of tobacco, the growers were able to transition to other (less valuable) row crops. In CA, I think your vision is that land comes out of production. That leads to a whole other set of hurt for folks whose livelihood depends on the ag. industry (farm supply, grocery stores, etc.).

    A4