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A person who has a weak argument often attacks the opposition about unrelated issues. Mike Dunbar, editorial page editor and columnist for the Modesto Bee, does just that in a recent editorial (printed with “Enviros say dams bad—until they need cold water” as the title in The Fresno Bee). First, you’ve got to love his cute nickname for environmentalists, “Enviros,” which sounds a lot like “whackos.” And you’ve got to admire a columnist who, right off the bat, shows his bias, announcing that he has no intention of presenting a reasonable, balanced argument. Even I at first thought I was being too sensitive, but, sure enough, in the third paragraph he lambasts an environmental group for collecting $133 million dollars in contributions in 2015.
Imagine that! An environmental group that raises enough money to be effective! They must be doing something right. I have more trouble imagining a local newspaper these days that makes enough money to stay in business and consistently issue a quality daily newspaper. Certainly, in the last few years, The Bee in my neck of the woods has started charging twice the price for half the quality. Alas, if only The Bee could be as business-savvy and competent as an environmental group. To Mr. Dunbar, that is unthinkable. He suggests that a large number of people are merely being duped by a group of slick con-artists. That’s why enviros cynically attack farmers—so they can keep “vast rivers of cash” flowing into their coffers. (Apparently, the masses just love it when enviros attack farmers.)
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I would love to watch Mr. Dunbar go up against a powerful industry just to see how far he gets without the help of these organizations. Oh, but then both he and Bill McEwan, editorial page editor of The Fresno Bee, carry the buckets for big ag. (And gee, it’s becoming pretty clear how to get a job as an editorial page editor in the Central Valley….)
Mr. Dunbar’s main argument is absurd on its face. He implies that enviros complain about dams until they need cold water, which can be found only in deep pools behind dams, to maintain salmon runs. Apparently, in Mr. Dunbar’s confused mind, dams have created the cold water necessary for maintaining salmon populations. Need I remind Mr. Dunbar that the salmon were doing just fine before the dams were built? Where I live, dams completely wiped out a healthy salmon run, which will probably never return. Dams and water diversions have essentially killed the San Joaquin River, which runs dry northwest of Fresno most years. Yet Mr. Dunbar resents releasing cold water from the reservoirs to enable conservationists to maintain salmon runs in a few rivers. On the other hand, diverting eighty percent of the water for agriculture and killing our rivers is just fine and dandy in Mr. Dunbar’s book. If he has ever considered how dams have adversely affected other species or the public, he doesn’t let on. And given the percentage of water used by farmers and his criticism of releasing water for salmon runs, Mr. Dunbar’s concept of “shared use” is simply laughable.
Let’s consider some facts. A Stanford study, according to Mr. Dunbar, “shows the South Valley lost from 336,000 to 600,000 acre-feet of storage capacity during the drought” due to farmers causing aquifers to collapse by over-pumping the groundwater. That’s about ten times the new water that would be created by a dam at Temperance Flat (60,000 thousand acre-feet) in a good year. In dry years, which are quite common in the Valley, the dam would only create about 21,000 acre-feet of new water annually. Mr. Dunbar also mentions that farmers pumped 10 million acre-feet of water during the drought in the past five years. Based on his own facts, how could Mr. Dunbar believe that current farming practices are sustainable? Another dam cannot even begin to counteract farmers’ over-use of groundwater in the Valley. Donald Trump may lie about most things, but he is right about one: “There is no drought.” In the Valley, drought is the normal condition, yet farmers and Mr. Dunbar want to live in a fantasy world where they can pretend that anything can be grown in a desert (as long as more and more dams are built), even almonds, walnuts, pistachios, cotton, rice, fodder crops, and on and on and on. Mr. Dunbar has forgotten his history: The Central Valley Project (CVP) was built in the mid-twentieth century in large part due to farmers severely over-drafting the groundwater. Half a century later, the same problem is rearing its ugly head, even with all the dams and the seven million acre-feet a year that the CVP provides. How can Mr. Dunbar possibly consider this situation sustainable?
Mr. Dunbar stakes his hopes on the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014, which requires all groundwater basins to become sustainable by 2030. As he says, “If no sustainability plan is submitted by 2022, the state will impose one.” This is a state that, unlike most other states, has avoided imposing groundwater regulations for over a century on farmers due to the concentrated power of the hydraulic brotherhood. Most people who are paying attention know there are numerous ways to weaken regulations and enforcement rules and undermine the best laid plans of the public and the government. Call me cynical, but as Mr. Dunbar states, “In the Valley, where farming is a way of life and dependency on our rivers and aquifers is a given, planning is well under way”—no doubt to undermine the sustainability plan. Anyone who believes that this plan will have teeth is a fool—that is, if there is not a well-organized effort by concerned citizens to bird-dog the process every step of the way. A large group of retired volunteers would be ideal, in other words, people who don’t have to worry about being blackballed by a powerful industry—because, as Mr. Dunbar may or may not realize, that is what our democracy is like here in the Central Valley. Perhaps Mr. Dunbar would volunteer to be our watchdog, or maybe Mr. Dunbar would be so kind as to politely ask the enviros with rivers of cash to devote countless hours to making sure the plan is effective.
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If corporate agribusiness is sincere in adhering to reasonable regulations, then we don’t have to worry, or do we? Right now, there are farmers who are planting almond orchards in the foothills and causing the water-table to drop 10 to 20 feet, which in Mr. Dunbar’s words is “clearly unsustainable,” a “slow-motion catastrophe.” Mr. Dunbar refuses to admit that the same slow-motion catastrophe in the entire Valley might not be slow enough to avoid disaster before 2030.
The Bee, in both Fresno and Modesto, is incapable of presenting the truth about a dam at Temperance Flat, almost as if some evil power has taken control of its word processors and continually censors all the facts. Consider the following. The state has over-allocated water rights on the San Joaquin River by 861 percent, and the river itself is fully appropriated, meaning that no more water rights are available. The river is already so over-used and abused that a dam will create very little new water. This is a river, by the way, that continues to maintain the honor of being one of the most endangered rivers in America. When is the public going to put two and two together? The public will pay billions for a dam that destroys public land mainly for the benefit of people in one industry who maintain water rights—even though that same industry continues to overdraft our subterranean lakes and kill our rivers and take land without compensation that belongs to our children and grandchildren. Mr. Dunbar should crunch the numbers: How much will each holder of water rights gain from a dam at Temperance Flat? Whatever it is, the public will lose something beyond measure. The public should be thankful that the NRDC and other environmental organizations have enough cash and courage to stand up to the likes of Mr. Dunbar and The Bee and agri-business, which is obviously still the most influential industry in the state.