by Devin Nunes
In 1931, a severe drought began that within a few years engulfed the Oklahoma panhandle and a third of the Great Plains in a "Dust Bowl." Tens of thousands of people fled the region—many traveling to California along Route 66, which John Steinbeck called "the mother road, the road of flight" in "The Grapes of Wrath."
A lot of the "Okies" settled in the San Joaquin Valley. In the decades that followed, state and federal officials built dams and other irrigation projects that helped turn the valley into some of the world's richest farmland.
But today the San Joaquin Valley is being transformed into a dust bowl. Hundreds of thousands of acres are fallow, while almond and plum trees are being left to die in the scorching sun. Tens of thousands of people have been tossed out of work—the town of Mendota alone has an unemployment rate of about 40%—and the lines for food donations stretch down streets. The reason? There isn't enough water to go around this year, and the Obama administration is drawing up new reasons to divert more of it from farms and people and into the San Francisco Bay.
The valley has traditionally been a place where someone with few belongings, little education and even no ability to speak English could prosper by picking grapes, milking cows, or hoeing cotton fields. The hearty people who came here were Portuguese, Mexican, Armenian, Italian, Basque and Dutch, along with westward-traveling Americans and Okies. More recent arrivals are from El Salvador, Vietnam and India. I am the product of a Portuguese family that came decades ago.
California has the largest water storage and transportation system in the world. With 1,200 miles of canals and nearly 50 reservoirs, the system captures enough water to irrigate about four million acres and provide water to 23 million people. In many cases, as with the San Joaquin Valley, water in this system is sold to communities by the federal government.
Some claim that California is facing a three-year-old drought. But, according to the state's Department of Water Resources, California reservoirs have received 80% of their normal amount of water and precipitation in the northern Sierras has been 95% of its yearly average this year. So why isn't there more water for farms? Because theirs is a regulatory-mandated drought. The 1973 Endangered Species Act requires that the government take steps to save endangered species. In California, that's meant diverting vast sums of water into rivers and streams to protect fish. Those diversions this year have forced federal authorities to decide who to serve—fish or farmers.
On Dec. 15, 2008, the Bush administration's Fish and Wildlife Service chose fish, a decision driven by a lawsuit filed in federal court in 2006 by the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups. To settle the suit, the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to divert more than 150 billion gallons of water this year away from farmers south of San Francisco in hopes of protecting the Delta smelt—a three-inch bait fish. The water is now flowing underneath the Golden Gate Bridge and out into the Pacific Ocean.
Of course, the Delta smelt isn't a particularly attractive species to protect when it means throwing Americans out of work. On June 4, the National Marine Fisheries Service declared that delivering water to farms in the San Joaquin Valley would harm killer whales in the Pacific. And to save the whales, the Obama administration is now demanding even greater water restrictions beyond what has been diverted for the smelt.
There are 130 animal species in California on the federal endangered list, including five salmon species, five steelhead species, four trout species and the North American green sturgeon. To date, not a single fish within the California water system has been removed from the Endangered Species List over the past 35 years. Despite massive amounts of water diverted to help them, the "protected" smelt, sturgeon and salmon populations have continued to decline. It is hardly unreasonable to ask why farmers should continue to suffer if diverting water hasn't even helped the fish.
Congress has the power to solve this crisis. In 2003, a fish-versus-families debate erupted in New Mexico after water deliveries to Albuquerque from the Rio Grande River were cut off to protect habitat for the silvery minnow—another three-inch bait fish. Congress temporarily suspended portions of the Endangered Species Act and guaranteed that water would be provided to Albuquerque. The situation in California is virtually identical and repeating what was done in New Mexico would do wonders for San Joaquin Valley farmers.
It would also accomplish more than what the administration currently has in mind. Next month Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is planning to hold a hearing on the situation in California, following up on a visit he made to the valley in June.
A spokesman for the Interior Department recently declared that San Joaquin Valley's water problems are a top priority for the Obama administration and that the river that flows through the valley and eventually to the ocean to form the San Joaquin Delta is as precious a natural resource as Florida's Everglades. What is precious and what President Barack Obama should come to see for himself are the 40,000 people in the valley who are desperate for water so they can get back to work.
If it doesn't start flowing any time soon, perhaps he can tell them where they should go. Back to Oklahoma?
Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A11