With the House Congressional hearings and Judge Wanger’s decision to allow pumping for a couple weeks right now (on the grounds that the pumps are allowed to kill about 23,000 juvenile salmon and so far have only killed about 1,200, so, you know, might as well pump a little), there’s been a whole lot of the now-familiar talking points. Regulatory drought will be the end of California farmers! Fish and ecosystems are collapsing! I’m also seeing the new “Communist carrots!”, which I greatly enjoy. I can only assume these are Maoist carrots, partly because they’re from China, but mostly because of course carrots would favor agrarian socialism. Their role in the Cultural Revolution has never been fully explored.
I want to talk about the way “farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley are hurting!” has become “farmers are hurting!”. This is interesting because 1. it is entirely unsupported, and 2. that gets the mechanism backwards, and 3. leads to interesting politics.
1. So far as I know (and I watch this stuff as closely as I can from behind a desk) growers on the west side have fallowed acres from water delivery cutbacks, and avocado growers in San Diego county stumped their trees. Besides those, I never hear of specific other growers fallowing acres. There might be some. If you look at the USDA ‘s California Vegetable Review for 2009, most crop acreage is down a percent or two; it comes out to 6,500 fewer acres of vegetable crops in CA last year, out of 760,000 acres of vegetable crops. The Field Crop Report is the same (tiny drop in acreage, mostly cotton; rice is booming), and so is the Fruit and Nut Review. None of those drops in acreage add up to the couple hundred thousand acres that Westlands is claiming they fallowed, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear about different accounting methods between the crop reports and a district assessment. My point is, I’m not hearing or seeing evidence that farmers in the Sac Valley, or Salinas, or Imperial, or the even the east side of the San Joaquin Valley are fallowing acreage from the drought. There’s a lot more to California ag than Westlands.
(Also worth noting that ag acreage and ag profits aren’t the same. Those crop reports show that 2009 yields and total values were up in 2009.)
2. But, say the strawmen in my head, Westlands is the tip of the Drought Iceberg! The thin end of the wedge! The start of the slippery slope! After Westlands is gone, the drought will come after the rest of California ag!!! I want to point out that this is not true. There is a direct causal relationship between reduced water deliveries and fallowed acres. Very roughly, one acre of land has to be fallowed for every three feet of water that aren’t delivered (moderated by efficiency improvements and groundwater substitution). And then, that’s all. The drought doesn’t spread past that one-to-three relationship. There aren’t synergistic effects. It isn’t like a network, where taking out one link weakens the rest. In fact, it is the opposite. Farmers are in competition with each other. Every lost acre of almonds in Westlands makes an almond grower in the Sac Valley just a little bit more secure. Fallowing will track water run-off and water deliveries, but it isn’t contagious. It isn’t a slippery slope; it does whatever annual run-off and water deliveries do. It doesn’t spread to more senior rights holders or even across the San Joaquin Valley.
Contrast that with the fisheries, salmon or smelt. Those truly are feedback loops, or a downward spiral. A lost juvenile salmon now is also lost salmon descendants and lost food from the foodchain. Taking pieces out of that network weakens the whole system, unlike fallowing, which strengthens the remaining farmers.
3. I’ve been wondering how Westlands has convinced so many Congressmen and some of the public that they’re the symbol of all California ag. I keep wondering whether farmers will hang together, and how long they’ll consider Westlands’ interests their own. Farmers in the Delta (530,000 acres) and Westlands (600,000 acres) are on opposite sides of the Peripheral Canal debate. Sac Valley farmers are a little suspicious of Westlands’ (and L.A.’s) intentions. The coastal ag valleys and the southern ag valleys are entirely different systems. So why is the rest of California ag willing to let the Farm Bureau and the California Ag Board and the California House ag Representatives act like what is good for Westlands is good for everyone? All the other contractors are going to end up paying for infrastructure to keep some of their biggest competitors in business just a little longer before they transfer their water rights to L.A. How does that help the Friant? How does that help the Sac Valley? Their representatives have been hijacked, and I wonder how long before it starts to bother the rest of CA ag that representing Westlands doesn’t represent them.