Of course, the farmers fought back. Some of the wealthiest and most powerful farmers in the country are right here along the shores of old Tulare Lake. During the Bush administration, these farmers won a major victory in Tulare Lake Basin Water Storage District et al., v. the United States. The government was ordered to pay a multimillion-dollar settlement for withholding irrigation water to protect endangered fish during a drought.
Take the tiny Delta smelt, for example: Since this fish hit the state endangered species list in 2010, water-pumping from the San Joaquin–Sacramento River Delta has been curtailed in an attempt to restore the sensitive ecosystem of the West Coast’s largest estuary. Farmers throughout the state are being forced to fallow fields in order to save it. Back then, the Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed with the title “California’s Man-Made Drought.”
And still the battle goes on. During the middle of my trip, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a ruling limiting water pumping to protect the fish, dealing a major blow to agricultural interests in the state. The issue has become so politically charged that you can’t talk about water in California anymore without talking about the Delta smelt.
Problem is state environmental regulators are fighting a losing battle. Despite the restrictions on agricultural water use, the Delta smelt’s population is still in a freefall. Last year, populations of the fish reached a new record low since it became endangered, down more than 90 percent over the past 20 years. Environmentalists argue that the smelt is much more important than its size and is an indicator species for the ecosystem health of the entire region, including salmon and migrating birds. They say huge corporate farms are pulling out all the stops to grab water from every source they can find, even in spite of a major drought.
They’ve got a case, too. As I wrote in my previous Thirsty West, agriculture already uses 80 percent of the state’s water, with a significant portion of that destined to support cash crops—like almonds—grown for export. It makes sense to ask farmers to do more with what water they already have.
Some solutions on the table are almost laughably outrageous: A multibillion-dollar proposal by Gov. Jerry Brown to build aqueduct tunnels under the Delta so as to not interfere with fish habitat has advanced to the planning stages. A plan to load salmon in trucks and haul them upriver by convoy is already underway. An $11 billion “water bond” is scheduled to go in front of California voters in November.
Unfortunately, both sides in this debate aren’t yet facing the grim reality of the future. Sensitive species like the Delta smelt are going to go extinct due to climate change. Fighting against saltwater intrusion, snowpack loss, and warmer temperatures is a losing battle with or without environmental regulation (though if done well, environmental regulation will blunt this change). Some ecosystems, like the Delta, are going to change in fundamental ways in the coming decades. The state can’t bring its economy crashing down in the process.
It’s easy to argue that the point of the increasing slate of environmental rules in California is to help reclaim what was once here, if not for an overreach of human activity. Just because humans carry the biggest sticks (and most powerful river-diverting machinery) doesn’t mean we get to wipe out entire species. It’s not that the Delta smelt is a lost cause. But in cases like Tulare Lake and the Delta, reclaiming any semblance of what once was may be unachievable.
Still, Iacono is optimistic the problem will be solved, one way or another. He says if the current drought doesn’t force action, some future calamity will. “At some point we’re going to hit that tipping point, but of course we might get regulated out of ag before that happens. California might go back to being a desert again."
* * *
In my next stop on the Thirsty West road trip, I'll visit a farmers market in Oakland to get a sense of how urban Californians are dealing with the drought.
Las Vegas, Nev.
Sequoia National Forest
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.
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