Sunday, December 11, 2016


The San Joaquin River Gorge

     Depressed at first by Donald Trump's victory, I woke up last Sunday morning and realized that, largely due to local media, I have spent most of my life in Trump land—a domain where facts don't matter, where history is manipulated by the hands of power, where you're not expected to believe much, if anything, you hear. I decided that if I can survive forty-five years in the San Joaquin Valley, in proto-Trump land, then I'm pretty sure that we can survive the next four years (as long as Trump's staff manages to keep the President's busy fingers away from the nuclear launch codes). Then, sipping my coffee, I read The Fresno Bee's editorial supporting a dam at Temperance Flat and an editorial on the facing page about how farmer's are protecting endangered species—when farming is in fact the reason for most of the habitat destruction. (See Letter to the Editor below.) The bald-faced lies, fallacies of logic, and absurdities seemed even worse than before. After Trump's victory, I concluded, the editorial staff of The Fresno Bee has slid headlong into fatuity.
     In true Donald Trump form, The Bee claims that “People have short memories” while neglecting to mention that the public in the Central Valley has already given up an underground sea of groundwater to agribusiness, which has severely over-drafted the aquifers. The public in the Valley has given up most of its river resources to agribusiness as well: Riverbeds in the Valley have remained dry for decades even as water continues to course through diversion canals. The public has given up its land, wiped out by dams in numerous places on the San Joaquin River and well over a thousand other places in California. Now The Fresno Bee is all in favor of the public paying billions of dollars to allow the annihilation of a magnificent public park and the diverting of water resources for agribusiness in a twisted form of socialism for the wealthy—under the guise of recharging the aquifers. The Bee, unlike just about everyone else, refuses to acknowledge that the writing is on the wall due to unregulated groundwater pumping—Another reservoir, which will hold some of the most expensive water in the state, will not for long keep farmers from putting themselves out of business.

Trail into San Joaquin River Gorge, with Pounding Stone to the Left

     The Bee relies on pure hyperbolic fallacy, claiming that a new dam at Temperance Flat would be a “linchpin” within the system of waterworks. A new dam will, quite simply, not hold the various elements of the Central Valley Project's vast system together as farmers race to the bottom to mine the groundwater still within reach. Unlike other states in the nation, farmers have succeeded in pressuring California to avoid imposing groundwater regulations, which has led to a new water war that pits neighbor against neighbor and farms against urban areas as the aquifers run dry. Unrestrained pumping of groundwater for unsustainable crops, not drought, which has always been a chronic condition in the Valley, is the main cause. As farmers race to suck up the last groundwater, the assertion that one dam is going to provide enough water to recharge nearly exhausted aquifers on the Valley's east-side, let alone throughout the Valley, is a ludicrous fallacy.
     Lisa M. Krieger writes in The Mercury News about the proliferation of new wells, “The rush to drill is driven not just by historically dry conditions, but by a host of other factors that promote short-term consumption over long-term survival — new, more moisture-demanding crops; improved drilling technologies; and a surge of corporate investors seeking profits for agricultural ventures....Now those forces are renewing an age-old problem of environmental degradation: Decades ago, overpumping sunk half of the entire San Joaquin Valley, in one area as much as 28 feet. Today new areas are subsiding, some almost a foot each year, damaging bridges and vital canals.”
     Have dams ever solved for long the chronic
Bush Lupine near Trail
problem of over-drafting groundwater? Even with all of California's waterworks, groundwater makes up anywhere from forty to sixty percent of fresh water consumed in California, according to The Sacramento Bee. As The Fresno Bee mentions in its editorial, The Central Valley Project was built in large part because farmers in the early twentieth century were over-pumping groundwater at an alarming rate, yet here we are again with the same old problem despite the dams and water diversions. Despite fledgling groundwater regulations that farmers could tie up in court for decades, no one can be certain that farmers will stop over drafting our groundwater supply before it's too late—even with a new dam.
     Effectively fighting off water regulations for decades and pumping as if there is an unlimited supply of liquid gold, farmers are in the process of creating ghost towns on the east-side of the Valley. Pending regulations are currently vague and in a state of limbo. According to The Sacramento Bee, uncertainties abound about the new California groundwater regulations, including who will fund and who will manage the agencies; how the water use will be tracked and how the violators will be punished; how much water will be drawn overall and how it will be divvied up; and whether or not zoning ordinances should be used to limit new wells and the types of crops that can be planted.
     Whether or not the regulations have any teeth is the essential
Lupine and Poppies by Trail
question. Over the years I have witnessed how industries do a run around regulations by pressuring legislators to under-fund agencies, by getting representatives who are hostile to regulation appointed to water-down rules and enforcement policies, and by limiting citizen representation on rule-making boards. Often industry members step gingerly through a revolving door into rule-making positions. In a place where agribusiness has successfully avoided regulation for the greater part of a century, where even the word regulation can inspire farmers to run for their guns, establishing effective regulatory agencies will be a task that would cause even Hercules to tremble.
     Trump's choice of Scott Pruitt, sworn enemy of environmentalists, to head the Environmental Protection Agency makes the future of the regulations even more uncertain. Considering the bitter water wars of the past and the political effectiveness of the hydraulic brotherhood, as a person who has been politically active for several decades, I have little hope that the regulations will be effective enough to keep the farmers from exhausting our water resources or from putting themselves out of business. The farmers can always sell their land; the public, on the other hand, will be left with no water in the well.
     The public has given up its river resources and its groundwater and its park lands, and has paid a fortune to assist agribusiness, yet the problem of over-drafting continues to rear its ugly head because of an unsustainable system. In the Valley, farmers have continued to plant permanent, unsustainable crops, including almonds, pistachios, and walnuts, and water-guzzling crops, such as cotton and rice, that have no business being grown in a desert. Farmers, like bankers on Wall Street, have created a disaster waiting to happen. With the Temperance Flat Dam proposal, they hope to benefit from the threat of disaster. The Fresno Bee, despite its public trust role, is all too happy to provide the PR for them. If a dam is built at Temperance Flat, unfortunately, the next great loss to the public will no doubt be the Kings River Special Management Area when farmers provide the next installment of disaster capitalism: Farmers have clamored to build a dam at Roger's Crossing for years. California and the federal government have yet to put the brakes on a system that is wildly out of control, and the public will continue to pay for it—with hard-earned cash and the loss of even more public resources.

Trail Below Bluffs: San Joaquin River Gorge

     Despite the minefield of water rights and policies in California, our legislators have neglected one simple fact: Water does not recognize property boundaries. Neglecting this fact is quickly leading to a day of reckoning. At some point, no doubt, the only farmers who survive the exhaustion of ground water resources will be the ones who can afford to drill the deepest wells, but even they will reach a point where it is no longer profitable to drill deeper. Quite simply, California's system of allowing one industry unrestrained access to groundwater and its kooky policy of handing out five times more rights to water than our rivers produce even in a normal year has led to the draining of water resources by one industry, resulting in one loss after another for the public, the loss of rivers and riparian ecosystems and public lands and precious groundwater. The loss of The San Joaquin River Gorge Special Recreation Management Area, which would be wiped out by a dam at Temperance Flat, would be just another tragedy in a lengthy list of losses. Unfortunately, there is not much left for the public to lose.
     When it comes to who gets the water from the new reservoir, even The Bee has acknowledged that much of the water is spoken for. Despite all that the public has given up, the people whose wells have run dry are probably not going to be first on the list to receive water for recharging their aquifers. The farmers are going to continue to receive the lion's share of the water. Instead of addressing the public's needs, The Bee has decided that the public should feel obliged to give up another arm and a leg to perpetuate the unsustainable practices of a private industry, with the net effect of destroying public lands and diverting the vast majority of river water for irrigation even while farmers continue to suck up the groundwater and pollute with toxic chemicals what should be treated as a public resource. The public in the Central Valley is once again the loser. The Bee, which should play a public trust role, is once again twisting the truth for the wealthiest beneficiaries of California's most precious resource.

Tony Francois's statement (opinion Dec. 4) of the diversion of “water of life” by federal water managers from endangered Valley wildlife species for Delta smelt protection, is nothing but an emotional fabrication of the truth.
Vernal pools (filled only by annual rainfall) which host various species of fairy shrimp, the California tiger salamander and unique compositions of vernal pool wildflowers, and the associated grassy uplands containing prime habitat for the San Joaquin kit fox are not threatened by water diversions, but from the incessant conversion of this unique foothill habitat for thousands of acres of new and water-thirsty almond orchards.
The California condor, which nests in remote rocky crags within forested foothills, is not a water-dependent species, but receives its liquids from dead carrion. It is also very doubtful that kayakers are “regularly engaging in recreation” in arid kit fox habitat.
His verbose bashing of federal water managers is just another verse from a very overplayed song of unsubstantiated accusations.
(Thank you, Mr. Zahm!)

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