By Ted Sheely, Lemoore, California
California is in trouble.
Worst of all, from my perspective as a farmer, is that we’ve failed to keep the water flowing.
That may change, thanks to the Trump administration. It recently updated federal regulations that have limited the delivery of water to the places where we need it most: the cities and suburbs where so many people live and the farms and fields where we grow food, feed and fiber for everyone.
Yet environmentalists object. They’d rather preserve the habitat of the delta smelt, a minnow-like fish that’s smaller than a fish stick. Their pleas have led to astonishing waste. In recent winters, California has flushed more than 100 billion gallons of water into the Pacific Ocean. That’s more than 2,500 gallons of water for each resident in the state.
Meanwhile, ordinary citizens have endured severe restrictions on how much water they can use in their homes. Farmers have suffered as well. This year, following a winter that saw a lot of snowfall in the mountains, I’m getting only 80% of my prescribed water allotment.
That’s better than nothing—and I would know, because during a recent drought, I went two full seasons without receiving any water at all.
Yet even 80% involves frustration. If you were to take an important test in school, would you be satisfied with 80%? That’s barely a B-minus.
When farmers lack water, they are forced to let fields go fallow. These fields produce nothing. Sometimes we can turn to wells for groundwater. Unfortunately, this is at best a temporary solution because it creates a different stress on the environment. We have to—and do—keep a close eye on groundwater levels and allow them to replenish.
On our farm, we do everything we can to conserve water. We use the advanced technology of precision irrigation to deliver just the right amount of water to exactly the right spot. Water is an investment in food and fiber production. Our goal is not to waste a drop. (I’ve written on our efforts here.)
So you can imagine my consternation at the spectacle of pumping vast volumes of this precious resource into the Pacific Ocean for the sake of the delta smelt.
Even more aggravating is the fact that the delta smelt may not need all the water it gets. This is at the heart of the Trump administration’s recent decision. For years, our understanding of the delta smelt has relied on what regulators call a “biological opinion.” Now they’ve revised this opinion, based on new information and better science.
The result is that it looks like we’re going to have more access to California’s water.
This is excellent news that will improve quality of life in residential areas and help us grow more food in agricultural regions.
Several news outlets have praised this decision. The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, for example, called it a “deregulatory gift” that will help “farmers and folks.”
Others, however, have chosen to repeat the talking points of liberal environmental groups. Here’s the how the New York Times reported the government’s decision: “The Trump administration on Tuesday moved to weaken protections for a threatened fish.”
Well, that’s one way to describe it, especially if you think protections for the delta smelt are more important than protections for farmers and food production and everybody who relies on them, including journalists who work amid the skyscrapers of Manhattan and probably can’t remember the last time they set foot on an actual farm or talked to an actual farmer.
I’m grateful for the possibility that in 2020, my farm will receive additional water. Ultimately, though, we need to build a better infrastructure—and invest in the reservoirs and distribution systems that can store massive amounts of water and deliver them efficiently.
Our public officials have neglected this responsibility and now we’re paying a price.
That’s the thing about California’s water woes. We can choose a future of aridity and rationing—not to mention blackouts, wildfires, and smog—or we can choose something else.
It’s up to us.
Ted Sheely raises pistachios, lettuce, cotton, tomatoes, onions, wheat, wine grapes and garlic on a family farm in the California San Joaquin Valley. He volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network. www.globalfarmernetwork.org