Farm Progress

A state plan to force half the water from two major rivers to flow unimpeded to the Pacific Ocean was met with a unified voice through a series of meetings though some fear the state will ignore the people and take the water anyway, setting up decades of lawsuits

tfitchette, Associate Editor

December 21, 2016

3 Min Read
California farmers have built and paid for large water projects across the state that have long-been used to irrigate crops and make the state's agriculture industry a powerhouse.Todd Fitchette

Watching the live, online feed of the public hearing related to California’s proposal to take two major rivers by forcing water from them to flow unimpeded to the ocean says one thing to me: this is going to be a different fight for government officials who enjoy the view from their thrones.

For those unaware, the state agency that controls who gets water in California and for what use is conducting hearings because they must – not because they necessarily want to hear from the serfs, but because it’s the law and they’ve mastered the ability to make meetings so uncomfortable that “Joe Farmer” tends not to come because he’s got better things to do – like work and try to make money.

That’s not been the case with the latest set of hearings, where farmers filled theaters and large convention center meeting rooms to voice their unified opposition to a plan ostensibly to improve conditions for salmon and other threatened fish species in the Sacramento and San Joaquin River Deltas.

That’s not what it’s about, according to some who have long argued that California public policy is to rid the state of production agriculture. It’s difficult to say folks like this are “off-base” with actions like the aforementioned water plan.

I watched part of the Modesto meeting, which was carried live online. I’m told over 1,200 people were there as another 800-1,000 reportedly attended a similar hearing in Merced the day before.

In both cases the messages were the same: don’t take our water; you’ll destroy our economy and agriculture as we know it in California.

The cynic in me says they’ll try to do it anyway, even though the preponderance of public comment suggests the state water board is way off base in its desire and reasoning.

Several speakers openly challenged the “flawed science” used by the state board that apparently fails to consider all the economic impacts to the plan, while admitting to some.

Others used words like “water grab,” which didn’t seem to sit well with board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus, who had a few last words of her own to defend the process.

There is no getting around what taking half of the flows from these rivers will do to an economy so intertwined with production agriculture that an honest look at the landscape makes it impossible to tell which businesses are not impacted by agriculture.

Jennifer Carlson, executive director of the Modesto-based Manufacturers Council of the Central Valley, says Stanislaus County alone – both rivers flow through the region – employs about 25,000 in food manufacturing and generates $8.6 billion in economic output.

Some are major players in the food processing sector: Gallo Wines, Foster Farms, Con-Agra Foods, Frito-Lay, Del Monte Foods, Hilmar Cheese, and Blue Diamond – just to name a few.

Tom Changnon, Stanislaus County superintendent of schools, challenged the board to consider what happens when public schools lose access to running water – a real possibility if farmers are not allowed to use river water and groundwater continues to be over drafted from the region.

Changnon asked: “What happens when students are forced to use portable toilets because we have no running water?”

Another poignant presentation came from Katherine Borges, chairman of the Salida Municipal Advisory Council, who promised that the fight for water won’t be farmers with pitchforks picketing meetings, but will be with lawyers as “the resilient residents of the Central Valley are in this fight for our lives,” according to Borges.

About the Author(s)


Associate Editor, Western Farm Press

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