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The California Water Wars: Ag Posts Record Revenues in 2008, 2009 - Even As They Predicted Ruin

By Tom Chandler 6/17/2011

Remember the stories about the rampant unemployment in the agricultural sector when a judge temporarily stopped the Delta pumps from removing record amounts of water from California's Sacramento Delta?

How the drought in California was decimating agriculture, and that if you didn't support essentially open-ended pumping of water from the Delta, you were a smelt-hugging terrorist who favored fish over people?

Remember the appearance of famous blowhard Sean Hannity, who may have set a record by not getting a single fact right in his televised report about the water crisis?

Turns out the truth was rather different than we were told. From the NY Times comes an article about a new Pacific Institute study:

Farmers and most other residents in the state's breadbasket blame environmentalism run amok for forcing them to leave fields unplanted when the water they hoped for was diverted to benefit the endangered ecosystem of the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta. But the institute's report, based on an extensive analysis of federal and state data as well as the records of water districts, argues that environmental constraints played at best a minor role in water shortages and rural unemployment.

If any single factor is to blame for rural unemployment, the analysis concludes, it is the collapse of the construction industry, which was crucial to the state's booming growth in the early 2000s. The report noted that "strong demand for California farm products on national and global markets also kept both crop prices and revenue high throughout the drought." The industries that suffered disproportionate harm from the drought, the report said, were hydropower and salmon fishing, not agriculture.

That's not the explanation that the Fox News commentator Sean Hannity offered for the Central Valley's troubles two years ago, when the photograph above was taken. In 2009, fallow fields sprouted signs reading "Congress-Created Dust Bowl" "” an apparent reference to congressional support for the Endangered Species Act, one of the laws involved in curtailing water supplies from the federal Central Valley Project.

But the report notes that in two of the drought years, 2008 and 2009, California's crops brought record high revenues. And while some Central Valley counties, particularly in the southern portions of the valley, suffered significant declines in crops like citrus fruits, overall unemployment in the agricultural sector rose in lockstep with "” or even a bit more slowly than "” unemployment in other sectors.

Record revenues and unemployment on a par with other sectors aren't exactly what was promised.

Not by a long shot.

It's always easy to blame environmental restrictions when people don't get all the water they want, though it's pretty clear that farmers--on the whole--did a hell of a lot better than salmon fishermen (commercial and sport), both of whom essentially took a couple years off.

Rather than face the reality that California's water is badly overpromised--and then get on with solving the issue in a way that doesn't decimate the Delta, salmon and their related industries--some agricultural concerns feel free to point fingers, misinform, and then file lawsuits in an attempt to remove even more water from the Delta.

In fact, Underground Fave Whipping Boys Westlands Water District--the wholly untrustworthy-but-politically-connected district that wanted to annex the McCloud River into their water district (located hundreds of miles south), were recently caught in yet another bald-faced lie about the amount of water used by agriculture in the state.

The drought wasn't kind to California agriculture--droughts are generally hard on everyone--but it's also clear it was a hell of a lot harder on salmon and the Delta Smelt than it was on farmers, and that some reasonable compromises better be found before the wet years play out, and we're facing another drought--and the flood of emotionally driven misinformation that accompanies them.

See you reading the papers, Tom Chandler


Tom Chandler

As the author of the decade leading fly fishing blog Trout Underground, Tom believes that fishing is not about measuring the experience but instead of about having fun. As a staunch environmentalist, he brings to the Yobi Community thought leadership on environmental and access issues facing us today.

Hey, you could have read it in the Record Searchlight six months ago -- --- though the Pacific Institute did the job far more exhaustively. The Fox News party line and the bombast Nunes peddles are indefensible (though it's nice to see Hannity stick up for farmworkers). That said, water rights are tricky. If your ... more junior water rights make you 51st in line when the allocations mean the first 50 get water, the fact that only 20 percent of the water cutbacks are due to fisheries is small consolation. If I'm not mistaken, the law might well take 100 percent that farmer's water. Sure, that's the nature of the business and maybe you should know better than to plant permanent orchard crops on land that only gets water half the time, but you can at least understand the pit in the guy's stomach.

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