There’s a big uproar among industrial agriculture interests in California’s San Joaquin Valley about a finding by the National Marine Fisheries Service that California’s practice of pumping of water out of rivers in order to irrigate crops is putting at risk the very existence of several species of threatened and endangered animals. Congressman Jim Costa, who represents part of the San Joaquin Valley in the House of Representatives, complained last night that the decision would require the reduction of water by his district’s corporate agricultural operations by five to seven percent at a time when California is in drought, saying,
“We are now in three continuous dry year conditions in the San Joaquin Valley that is not only affecting the richest agricultural region in the United States, in California, but the entire State as well. A drought caused by Mother Nature, expanded and impacted by numerous judicial decisions and legislative changes, has very, very much devastated the economy of the valley I represent.”
In California, people aligned with Big Agriculture are complaining that the issue is one of fish vs. people, and the National Marine Fisheries has chosen to side with fish, against people. Is that how it really is?
Well, people aren’t drinking that irrigation water. Plants are. Some of those plants provide food crops, and some provide a harvest that’s a bit more recreational. The area is part of the top wine-producing regions in the United States.
People drink wine. I like to drink wine myself. But, people like to eat fish too, especially the endangered Chinook salmon populations of which have become so decimated as a result of California’s irrigation projects, the salmon fishing season has been canceled for two years in a row. The salmon contribute strongly to the local economy too. So, this conflict isn’t really about fish vs. people. To be more accurate, it’s about fish vs. wine.
Wine growers are worried about a slowed growth of profits. People in the salmon fisheries are worried about the complete extinction of their harvest.
In his statement, Representative Costa calls the drought California is currently enduring a creation of Mother Nature, but that isn’t strictly true. Nature is involved, of course, but nature has been manipulated, through the emission of massive amounts of greenhouse gases. Climatologists have predicted that drought conditions just like the ones currently taking place would result from global climate change. In fact, they’ve predicted that these drought conditions will become permanent.
Greenhouse gases are being emitted as a result of California’s car culture, and its dependence on coal burning power plants. Ironically, industrial dairy operations like those of the San Joaquin Valley have been a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions too. I’ve personally visited many of the valley’s concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), where cows stand packed together in huge numbers, standing and lying down in their own shit all day, except for when they’re milked, producing huge amounts of methane. They’re disgusting places, but they’re among the agricultural operations that Jim Costa is defending.
This conflict isn’t about fish vs. people. It’s about fish vs. cars, coal and cows.
Congressman Costa is calling for the opinion of the National Marine Fisheries Service to be discarded, and for Californians not related to his district’s big agricultural industry to bear the brunt of the sacrifice. That makes the conflict not really about fish vs. people. It makes it about industrial agriculture vs. people.
Anyway, Costa’s insistence that other Californians can effectively make sacrifices to save the area’s riverine and marine ecosystems, while industrial agriculture goes on with business as usual, is not supported by the best scientific analysis of the systems involved. In the process of arriving at its current opinion, the National Marine Fisheries searched for alternative plans that could save the endangered fish and orcas while avoiding restrictions on the valley’s massive pumping operations. Two peer review boards, the CalFed Independent Science Board and the Center for Independent Experts, examined these alternatives and found them to be insufficient. Representative Costa claims to be a better judge of the facts than these two scientific peer review boards. That makes this conflict not about fish vs. people, but science vs. political opinion.
It’s been clear for decades that the massive irrigation programs to divert rivers to water crops in California was unsustainable. Rational discussion has focused not on whether the irrigation would be reduced, but rather when and by how much. It’s true, as Costa says, that the San Joaquin Valley has been transformed into “the richest agricultural region in the United States”, but that’s only taken place through a gigantic manipulation of water resources. In a more natural state, drought or no drought, the San Joaquin Valley is actually a very poor place for agriculture.
The message underlying the opinion from the National Marine Fisheries Service is that California’s agricultural boom has come at the expense of the state’s natural resources and the people who depend economically upon them. For Representative Costa to continue to defend his district’s drain of resources that are truly shared by many surrounding districts, and by the Pacific coast as a whole, is selfish and shortsighted. It cannot withstand the plain facts about the disaster his district’s corporate agriculture has created.