Two Inch Minnows Demolish CA Farmers

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Balancing flora, fauna and humanity is no easy task

Farmers in California’s Central Valley claim they’re being robbed of precious water by an environmentalist preoccupation with an innocuous minnow called the Delta Smelt; the little fish has managed to slither its way on to the endangered species list, and a federal court has closed off water pumps to farmers to irrigate their fields.

“California’s Central Valley is considered by many to be the richest and most productive farmland in the nation,” says Fox News reporter Ainsley Earhardt. “But this land is being threatened by the small, harmless-looking minnow called the delta smelt. Recently, it has landed on the endangered species list, causing a federal court to shut down vital pumps to farmers to help preserve it.”

Rep. Dennis Cardoza D-California has recruited the help of Republican Rep. Devin Nunes in convincing the House to support a “study of the employment consequences of water shortages“. Activists who organized a 4-day march to San Luis Reservoir will meet with lawmakers to discuss “the 10 percent cut in irrigation deliveries south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the 40 percent unemployment rate in towns like Mendota“.

“We’re trying to bring a human aspect to this thing,” said Mario Santoyo, a Reedley resident and president of the California Latino Water Coalition. “We haven’t had a voice before; this is part of trying to create a voice.”

Michael Doyle with McClatchy News suggests “skeptics…don’t buy the farmers’ insistence that overly strict environmental laws are to blame for the region’s woes. In this light, Valley complaints are typecast as merely the latest round in a long-running effort to crimp the Endangered Species Act and steer more subsidized water toward farms and away from environmental protection“.

“It’s not as easy as (Nunes) suggested,” said Democratic Rep. George Miller. “This is a statewide water system that serves many interests.”

But the sense of farmer desperation in Central California was palpable in a Fox News interview between Fox News correspondent Ainsley Earhardt and Kole Lipton, a local farmer. The interview also includes comments from Sarah Woolf, a spokesperson for the Westlands Water District, a company that oversees the man made, complicated water delivery system in the Central Valley, and Rep. Devin Nunes.

WOOLF: This is the pumping station. And it is pumped out of the delta here and brought into this canal system that makes its way. And there’s actually two that go along together.

EARHARDT: How many years has this been a process?

WOOLF: It was completed in 1968.

EARHARDT: Decades.

WOOLF: Yes.

EARHARDT: All of the farmers along all of this land, 2/3 of the state OF California have depended on water for their crops.

WOOLF: Yes.

EARHARDT: The water is turned off here, so none of these farmers can expect to get any water.

WOOLF: That is correct.

EARHARDT: Two years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do this. This was a canal full of gushing water irrigating the farmland here in the San Joaquin Valley. But as you can see, it is all dried up. The pumps were turned off after environmentalists won a federal court case. But at least one lawmaker in Washington is fighting back.

REP. DEVIN NUNES (R-CALIF.): You’re spending $1 trillion and you will not put in one provision that would create — save 60,000 jobs. This is an insult to my constituency.

What we have today is a man made brought on by laws, passed by Congress, to where we’re starting the breadbasket of the world and starving it of water to save little fish, which is outrageous.

EARHARDT: Green groups claim the smelt are critical to the delta’s ecosystem, and if the delta’s fragile ecosystem were to fail, so would the state’s main water source.

NOAH GARRISON, NRDC: If we allow the delta to become polluted or to lose — or for the help of that ecosystem to collapse, we lose the supply of water for 23 million people.

EARHARDT: But this argument offers little solace to farmers who have watched their land go from this to this.

KOLE LIPTON, FARMER: This is our lifeline. And, you know, it was a promise by the government. We have kept our word. This Congress has reneged on their agreements and their promises.

EARHARDT: Kole Lipton is a third- generation almond farmer here, and he argues that the American consumer should get ready for produce prices to soar and food scares to become a common occurrence.

LIPTON: Very simply. I would say, do you want to depend for your food supply on a foreign country? If you think you have problems now with salmonella and finding out what part of the United States it came from, think of the problem if you have a food scare and your food is being imported from South America or China.

EARHARDT: Representative Nunes estimate 37,000 jobs have been lost due to the smelt issue and that number is rising higher by that day. In one town in California, unemployment is up to an astonishing 40 percent.

I can see the tears in your eyes.

TERRY INCH, FARM WORKER: I’ll cry. This does not make me happy. Nobody wants this.

EARHARDT: What’s going through your mind?

INCH: I want a job. We don’t have water, we don’t have jobs.

EARHARDT: Stressful?

INCH, FARM WORKER: Yes. It hurts. Nobody likes a handout.

Unfortunately the water plight for Central California farmers has escaped national attention because consumer food prices nationwide have not been impacted. The Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service forecasts “low to moderate food price inflation” this year. And as McClatchy’s Doyle astutely points out “in today’s global marketplace, domestic and foreign competition can usually step in to fill one region’s [food] shortcomings“.

“The Valley’s unemployment rate is high now,” writes Doyle, “but it may not shock the national conscience because it’s always been above the national average. Omnipresent bad news also muffles the Valley’s groaning. The national unemployment rate of 8.9 percent is double that of January 2001. From the Valley’s political perspective, this is distracting“.

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Spence Cooper
Inquisitive foodie with a professional investigative background and strong belief in the organic farm to table movement. Author of Bad Seeds: A FriendsEAT Guide to GMO's. Buy Now!
Spence Cooper

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