Monday, June 15, 2009

California's Central Valley: Don't Let That Desert Bloom!

Hang onto your hats, folks, this story could be right out of Atlas Shrugged!

Today as I was shelving books in my Guest Room/Library, I heard a short news item on a local AM station from Albuquerque about a protest along I-5 in California's Central Valley. Evidently, some farmers had driven their tractors onto the the freeway near Fresno, and although they were in the slow lane only, it caused an accident. This is what the Fresno Fox station is reporting, but the real story is not about the accident, it's about why the farmers were driving their tractors onto the freeway at all. It was a water protest.
To understand it all, indulge me with a digression about the Great Central Valley itself, and its current problems.

I will start with a paragraph from my August 2007 Travelogue about the Central Valley:

"California's Central Valley is a geological wonder of the world. The Central Valley is a great sliver of oceanic crust that got stuck in the Sierran Subduction Zone, stopping the conveyor of ocean crust under the continent in that place, and causing subduction to begin further west, at the Franciscan Subduction Zone. On that stuck piece of oceanic bedrock, alluvium from the Sierras and river sediments have formed an amazing flat, fertile valley that stretches several hundred miles from the Tehachipi mountains in the south, to the rise of the Klamath north of Redding, California. It is incredible in it's flatness, it's immensity and fertility. Although there is not much to see geologically speaking, just alluvial fans here and there, and some stray volcanoes near Colusa, it is still impressive in a way that words cannot describe."

But the Central Valley, running between the Sierras, and fault blocks to the east and the Coast Range to the west, has no large natural rivers that run through it south of Sacramento. The Sacramento River enters the Central Valley near Redding, but flows west of Sacramento, joining the waters of the San Joaquin River to create a great delta at Suisun Bay, which is a northern extension of San Francisco Bay.

In order to make the Central Valley fertile south of Sacramento, water is pumped across the hills south of Sacramento, and then flows or is pumped through a series of canals and irrigation ditches down to Tehachipi, nearly 300 miles south. The picture to the left shows a pumping station south of Stockton.

This is an amazing feat of engineering that has made the Central Valley one of the great food producing places in the west, supplying the United States with much of its vegetables, fruit and nuts.

During the past three years, there has been a great drought in the Central Valley, making the farmers and the farm workers there more dependent than ever on the flow of water coming out of the north.

In the summer of 2007, when we drove through, the drought was in it's second summer, and dust storms like this one we drove through near between I-5 and Bakersfield, had become increasingly common. A desert dweller myself, I had still never seen a sight quite like this, because instead of sand, the dust-storm was made up of the fine soil fractions, coming from the silts and topsoils of the Central Valley.

In what some are calling an agricultural disaster on par with that of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, unemployment has grown to 20 - 50% in the Central Valley. People there are experiencing true misery and hardship.

But the final blow to the business of the fields and orchards is not the drought. They were hanging on and making do. And it was not the economic crisis, though that hurt.

The final blow is something that has so rarely made the national news that most Americans are not aware of it.

The final blow to agriculture in the Central Valley is the federal government. First, the pumps were shut down in 2007 for the Delta Smelt, a minnow that has been listed as endangered or threatened. It is endemic to the San Joaquin - Sacramento River Delta, and Federal Judge ruled that the water for agriculture in the Central Valley had to be released in Suisun Bay instead. However, there are differences of opinion about whether the threat to the fish has been overstated, and whether or not it is the water taken for agriculture that is responsible. There has also been some question about whether the Delta Smelt continues to have a unique genome, or if the population has interbred with other common minnows.

In February of this year, the people of the Central Valley were informed that they would receive zero water allocation for the season and that pumping would remain closed down. This means that there is no water to grow the crops, a loss of 60,000 jobs. The people of the Central Valley understand this to mean that in the eyes of federal government, they are not as important as a tiny minnow that looks exactly like the minnows they use for bait.

As a biologist, I believe that biological diversity is important. However, I have never thought it should be or even could be protected by laws, however well meaning, that pit the economies of whole states and countries against a single species. I also wonder whether or not the earth is losing biological diversity at the high rate that is bandied about. Where did the number come from? Does it take into account the fact that there are a myriad of species never identified? Or that species do adapt to changing environments? In fact, this last is the hallmark of evolution.

And as I have spent this evening looking into this story, I can't help but remember Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. In it she describes the destruction of whole regional economies due to the political considerations of a few self-righteous individuals. One segment tells of the food insecurity that burdened the whole nation brought on by a manufactured famine. It was different in the particulars than this one about to take place in California, but the results will be the same:

"The wads of worthless paper money were growing heavier in the pockets of the nation, but there was less and less for that money to buy. In September, a bushel of wheat had cost eleven dollars; it had cost thirty dollars in November; it had cost one hundred in December . . . while the printing presses of the government treasury were running a race with starvation and losing. " (Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, Centennial Edition, p. 1082).

This is exactly what will happen to food prices in this nation as a result of the insane farm and environmental policies of this government.

Ms. Rand's novel was prescient not because the author was a fortune teller, but because she could see clearly what happens to people when they place no value on their own lives. What is happening in California now is the result of a federal government out of control; one that exists not to " . . . establish justice, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty . . .", but rather exists to aggrandize its own power through political gamesmanship that can only end in tragedy for the productive people who are forced to give up their livelihoods at the behest of a looting politician.

A few things to ponder from an evolutionary biologist:

1. In the natural world, it makes no evolutionary sense for an individual to do anything for "the good of the species." What benefits the species is for individuals to maximize their individual fitness (differential reproduction), thus increasing diversity in the gene pool. However, individuals do not consciously choose this, rather they live their lives using the tools provided by their own natures, equisitely adapted and adapting to the niches the species fills, in order to benefit themselves and their offspring, who will propel their genes into the future.

2. It makes even less sense--if that is logically possible--for individual members of a species to decrease their own fitness for the supposed benefit of another, as the federal government is forcing the farming people of California's Central Valley to do.

There are good evolutionary reasons why human beings ought to value their own lives highest, then the lives of their close genetic relatives, and then lives other humans, above those of other species.

And human beings are unique in that our large and complex brains, which betray a unique evolutionary heritage, stand us alone among all the species on the earth. We are capable of reason, and we understand our own mortality. This is our gift, taken from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, to cite metaphor. This makes us uniquely responsible for our choices.

I have had a very difficult time understanding the real agenda behind political environmentalism, just as I have had a hard time understanding that there are people within our government who do not value human existence. But now I understand that both of them have the same agenda. Neither value their own lives so much as they value temporary power, unearned adulation, and total control over others. It is becoming clear to me that they'd rather die than give that up. And they'll die happy if they take the rest of us with them.

In the meantime, brace yourselves. California is about to be hit with the perfect storm. A man-made agricultural disaster and financial default. If the adage is true that as goes California, so goes the nation, then there are rough waters ahead.

NOTE: Below is a You-Tube Video from the California Farm Bureau Federation. If you go to the You-Tube site you will find all of the information you have probably not heard on the news. These farmers are not asking for a bail-out. They only want to use the water from one of the most ingeneous engineering projects of all time to feed the rest of us the food to which we have become accustomed to buying at decent prices.


Monica said...

Cutting off the water supply for a fish is ridiculous, I agree with that part. But the historical and political context here needs to be taken into account as well.

There's no such thing as a free lunch. Or, there is when you deal with the feds. ;) These farmers (and some in Arizona) get water at an uber-cheap rates in comparison to urban municipalities. These prices are basically set by the government or the farmers actually get water subsidies. Water rights and/or allocation have been notoriously ridiculousin this region of the country (California, Arizona, etc.). If they want to grow rice in a desert, they should have to pay the same price for water as everyone else (or at least, a lowered price in agreement with a *private* seller, which they don't). It simply makes no economic sense to grow cotton or rice in droughty areas in California or Arizona. These farmers get allotments of water for 1/7 to 1/4 the price that everyone else pays, and then sometimes sell to the highest bidder in years when they haven't needed the water! Before the fish issue, this was a federally created problem that would not exist in a free market.

Not only do these farmers get their water ridiculously cheap, many "benefit" from price supports due to federal marketing orders that have been in place since the FDR era. They also "benefit" (really, no one benefits from this) from federal fines applied to farmers all across other parts of the country (for which the farmers in CA actually lobby!!) who want to grow vegetables and fruits. Both of these policies actually end up actually raising the price of produce in the supermarkets pretty heftily, not to mention cutting off our access to cheap local (and much better tasting) vegetables and fruits in the summertime. This is a particular problem in the midwest where farmers can be fined heavily for being "out of compliance" with the commodity crop program.

I question whether produce from California would be all that competitive without the benefits received from a) price supports from federal marketing orders, b) fines applied to other farmers nationwide for growing the same thing (farmers in Texas and Florida "benefit" from these heinous penalties applied to other farmers nationwide as well), and c) what is ridiculously cheap water in comparison to what should be paid in a free market in order to grow water hogging crops in a desert. It simply doesn't make economic sense to farm rice or cotton in a desert. These crops use around twice as much water as something like wheat. If water were sensibly priced through market mechanisms, farmers would adjust to planting crops that don't require that much water and/or installing drip irrigation.

Because of all of this, it's a bit dificult for me to have much sympathy for growers in California. A wider historical context shows that they basically don't want to compete in a free market. Their come uppance is way overdue, though this is not the way it should come. I'm with you on the fish issue.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Hi, Monica,

This is an excellent comment that deserves to be responded to. I will post most of it as a blog entry.

Just a quick note here: I was going to include several paragraphs about the farmers deal with the devil, but the entry was long already and I took them out, intending to write then in another blog. I will do so, using your comment.


Monica said...

BTW, I would LOVE to hear any ideas you have about how to free up water supplies via a free market. This seems particularly difficult when this is all currently controlled by the state, not to mention the scale of the problem (i.e. states are fighting over water). You're likely aware that here in CO, we are in a drought but water that originates here goes to farmers in Central Valley via the Colorado R. I think I'm fine with that if they want to pay, because I strongly suspect the market would price out such inefficiencies as growing rice in a desert ... and if it's truly not inefficient, that's fine, too. (Unfortunately they get a double subsidy because rice and cotton are both heavily subsidized.)

Again, would love to hear ideas about how to privatize the water supply, because I come up empty on ways to actually institute such a sweeping change (though I do feel this is both the moral and practical answer).

I also wonder what sort of political machinations might be going on behind the scenes. If you recall, there was a similar use of ESA to keep water flowing downstream for a mussel during Atlanta's drought last year, year before? However, I wonder if this wasn't just a way for electrical utilities and the fishing industry downstream in Florida and Alabama to maintain their water supply (can't really blame them, Atlanta has grown to 4 times its size and the *people* [not the mussels] downstream have/had or should have/had some water rights). Georgia, Florida, and Alabama have been fighting over water for 90 years. In some cases, this might depend on the first historical use, I think.

Not saying either of these cases of water rights wasn't first instigated by environmentalists, as there have been too many instances of that kind of thing happening outside of any real economic concerns (i.e. spotted owl). However, I do wonder, if, in both of these water rights instances, there were/are affected parties or municipalities that saw no other way besides using an arcane ESA regulation to attain the water they "need", since the need isn't determined by the market, but rather, by what the feds decide is important/necessary.