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Climate Politics Converge In California

Yesterday was a big day for the San Joaquin Valley in California, as several separate strings in climate politics converged there, culminating in a rollicking debate and high-stakes vote in Congress. You may not have noticed, but it was the annual UN World Day To Combat Desertification and Drought. As noted in the Global Climate Change Impacts In The United States report released this week by the US Global Change Research Program, California has been suffering a ten-year drought in which climate change is a contributing factor. California, including the San Joaquin Valley is expected to experience more droughts in the future due to climate change, which is also reducing the area’s ability to grow some of its most profitable crops. You could say that California is in the early stages of widespread desertification.

On the other hand, you could note that much of California was already close to desert conditions to start with, and has only become lush and green through the unsustainable use of massive amounts of river water and groundwater for irrigation. It was never a strategy for growth that could last, and under the present drought, California’s water system is beginning to fall apart. Climate change is merely hastening the demise.

Yet, San Joaquin Valley politics is fueled by the agricultural giants that work in the region, and those giants can’t survive without the unsustainable practices – organic as well as conventional – that depend upon massive irrigation. So, San Joaquin politicians in the U.S. Congress have been thrashing in a kind of panic, desperately searching for ways to keep the industrial agriculture of their home districts going for just a little while longer.

Their struggle has come to a head with a scientific opinion from the National Marine Fisheries Service released this month. That opinion concludes that several endangered species, ranging in size from minnows to chinook salmon to orcas, will probably not survive unless the extraordinary pumping of water from the San Joaquin River is stopped. The opinion sets the legal foundation for changes required by the Endangered Species Act. In this case, the changes include a five to seven percent reduction in water pumping operations from the San Joaquin River.

california devin nunesWhat are the consequences of a five to seven percent reduction in irrigation for big agricultural operations in the San Joaquin Valley? According to U.S. Representative Devin Nunes, civilization itself is at stake. Yesterday, Nunes warned that unless the Marine Fisheries opinion was reversed through congressional action, “a collapse of civil society in the San Joaquin Valley” would take place.

Here’s a hint to Representative Nunes: If the survival of a civil society depends upon just a five percent margin in irrigation, the society isn’t very strong. That’s the nature of California’s agricultural boom, and the economic expansion that it has supported. It’s been built upon a temporary cheat that could never be maintained for very long.

With long-term droughts and an end to the irrigation bonanza, the California agricultural bubble is about to pop, but Devin Nunes is determined to glue the bubble back together. That’s why, yesterday, he introduced H. Amdt. 225 to H.R. 2847, an appropriations bill. The Nunes amendment read simply, “None of the funds made available in this Act may be used to implement the biological opinion entitled ‘Biological Opinion and Conference Opinion on the Long-Term Operations of the Central Valley Project and State Water Project’, issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service and dated June 4, 2009.”

The Nunes Amendment would have taken the Marine Fisheries opinion, which was crafted through long deliberation including two scientific peer review boards, and replaced it with a move founded completely upon political considerations. That’s an approach that agriculture in California has taken for a long time, ignoring scientific warnings about the unsustainable nature of crop irrigation there, for the sake of short-term, local benefit for a small number of influential constituents. It is not an approach that should be adopted by the national government, which has the responsibility of serving the general welfare as it exists broadly, across the boundaries of small congressional districts, and beyond the convenience of the moment.

This more responsible, comprehensive, scientific approach was advocated by U.S. Representative Mike Thompson, who reminded Nunes and his San Joaquin colleagues that the agricultural boom in the San Joaquin Valley has resulted in a bust for the fishing economies of the Pacific Coast. “The last administration devastated the fishing families of the north coast. We haven’t had a fishing season up there in years. Again this year it’s closed. And it’s all because science was put aside in favor of politics. Finally we have science coming in. Science should be allowed to be considered,” Thompson advised.

Thompson’s vision of a more general general welfare won the debate against the local commercial interests advanced by Nunes. The Nunes amendment was defeated, but only barely, on a vote of 208 in favor and 218 against. 37 Democrats joined 171 Republicans in supporting the amendment. The drought of integrity in the U.S. congress is bipartisan.

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