California’s historic drought is getting worse by the day, as water providers are now levying unprecedented cutbacks on municipalities and farmers. The federal Bureau of Reclamation had already announced that there’s a 50 percent chance that parts of California will face water rationing at some point next year, and the state government has cut off over 1 million acres of farmland from the state’s reservoirs. Although many Californians have never before experienced water shortages of this magnitude, water scarcity has long been a reality for the state’s farmers, who find it more difficult to make a living each year thanks to green policies crafted by politicians and activist judges clueless to the value of this scarce resource.
California’s most valuable land may be in Pebble Beach and Brentwood, but its most indispensable land lies in the Central Valley. It’s the farmland that feeds our nation of over 300 million and produces billions of dollars in exports each year, and if we stay on the path we’re on, it’s going to dry up. Rural areas throughout the nation are shedding jobs, losing crops, and rationing an increasingly tight water supply, but Valley farmers are facing environmental roadblocks unique to the Golden State.
However inconvenient the drought and 20 percent water conservation measures may be to city dwellers, water scarcity has long been a way of life in many rural areas. Farmers adhere to a rigid set of allotments, and must carefully plot out their water use to last the entire growing season and maximize crop yields. This delicate calculus is dangerously vulnerable to any change in the equilibrium — whether natural (a drought) or man-made (legislation, diversion, or other upriver activity).
When farms are the focal point of a state’s water policy, water-sharing and conservation can work, but when politicians put other interests ahead of our food supply, the results can be disastrous. However noble efforts to conserve the environment and protect endangered species may be, policies that in effect create man-made droughts lead to unemployment, hunger, higher food prices, and third-world water rationing policies that threaten public health.
The Central Valley, for example, relies on diversions from a number of rivers — some a great distance away — for its water supply. The Sacramento, for example, runs from the state’s extreme north to the San Francisco Bay, is connected to the Valley by several hundred miles of irrigation canals, and can discharge over 600,000 cubic feet of water per second. The proximity of such a large and powerful river has enabled the Central Valley to produce about 8 percent (or $17 billion worth) of America’s crops on about 1 percent of its arable farmland.
Unfortunately, Valley farmers are no longer receiving their fair share of water from the river, as a federal judge has ordered the state to instead divert billions of gallons of fresh water otherwise destined for farmland to the habitats of endangered fish — an order that California politicians met with little resistance. In recent years, over 300 billion gallons of water were taken from farmers to protect the habitat of the delta smelt. And much as the smelt and other affected fish species may appreciate this kind gesture, the 6.5 million residents of the Central Valley are somewhat less satisfied, as the diversions have contributed to over 40 percent unemployment in some communities and rendered thousands of previously fertile acres too dry to farm even before the drought.