Thursday, July 30, 2009

Fresno: A Taste of Things to Come

There are far bigger problems in Fresno County, California, than the ongoing lawsuit brought by Bishop Lamb and ECUSA against Bishop Schofield. Today, the Toronto Globe and Mail came out with a well-written and detailed story about an ongoing clash between farmers in the San Joaquin Valley whose irrigation water supply has been cut to negligible amounts due to environmental agitation to save the delta smelt. Delta smelt are steel-blue, six-inch long fish who serve primarily as food for invasive larger species of fish such as the striped bass and largemouth bass. They cannot survive encounters with the large pumps used to send water from the delta south to the San Joaquin Valley for irrigation. Their numbers dropped in recent years to the point where they became listed as an Endangered Species and hence entitled to federal protection. The reduction in the water supplies for the San Joaquin Valley, following on two years of drought, have forced farmers first to watch crops wither in the field, and then to let their fields lie fallow.

The economic consequences are now severe. The story in the Globe and Mail relates the following facts:
The lineup at the makeshift food bank by the old rodeo grounds is almost a kilometre long.

Tent cities for the homeless have sprung up on H Street in Fresno.

The last bank, Westamerica, in the nearby town of Mendota has a new sign in the window saying it will close for good.

In California, authorities have begun to issue IOUs instead of cash.

Unemployment stands at 11.6 per cent and 180 cities are set to sue the state over a budget that proposes to close a $26.3-billion shortfall by taking $4.7-billion from their coffers.

In all of this, Fresno County . . . has the unenviable distinction of being the hardest-hit county in the state.

Its jobless rate reaches 40 per cent in some towns. America's housing crisis was its most pronounced here, with prices almost triple a home's value. Nearly half of all sales these days involve foreclosure.

. . . [The] Central Valley, a semi-arid, 650-kilometre stretch of land is the heart of California's $37-billion agricultural industry. Half of the country's vegetables are grown here. It also ranks as the world's largest agricultural area.

. . .

Today, Interstate 5, the highway that slices through the San Joaquin Valley, is flanked by parched fields. Signs, in English and Spanish, proclaim: “Congress-created dustbowl” and “No water, No future” and “Like foreign oil? You'll love foreign food.”

The bitter irony that farm families in the region known as America's salad bowl are flocking to food giveaways at churches and community centres is lost on no one.

Without water, farmers have left an estimated 200,000 hectares of once-productive farmland fallow. Thousands of farm workers, mainly Spanish-speaking migrants, have been laid off.

. . . [L]ost farm revenue in the San Joaquin Valley could top $2-billion this year and will suck as many as 80,000 jobs out of its already-battered economy.
And what is the importance of the delta smelt? You can search for a long time on the Web, and you will find no one who wants to stick his or her neck out. To be sure, there is lots of talk about "integrated ecosystems", the smelt "as a warning indicator for other species", and similar concepts, but the bottom line is that it has been declared an Endangered Species. And under the mandated protections of the Federal and State Acts, there are no options but to stop the pumps, even though there are absolutely no guarantees that the smelt will survive other ecosystem pressures --- like those invasive predators they attract. The people who depend on the distribution of irrigation water to make their living feel they are being unfairly singled out to take the bulk of the penalty for long-term and wide-scale ecosystem mismanagement.

This statement is from the Association of California Water Agencies, whose 450 members are responsible for about 90% of the water delivered in California:

"This decision focuses on a single species when, instead, we need to focus on the entire ecosystem. It regulates only water project operations when the science clearly indicates that other stressors -- including exotic species, land uses and pollution -- play a major role in the demise of the aquatic ecosystem. Further, this decision will do nothing to solve the underlying structural causes of the conflict between the needs of the aquatic environment and the state's water system.

"The benefits to Delta smelt are highly speculative because of the very limited approach being taken. What is not speculative, however, is the very real impact on our economy these actions will have. This will certainly add to on-farm jobs losses, push additional businesses into failure, and further burden our urban and agricultural economy at a time when the state and the nation are in an economic tailspin.

"What's happening here is a single-species, single-stressor approach using half-century-old infrastructure that pits species protection against the California economy -- all under the control of a federal judge. It's an approach inherited from the past, and frankly we need new leadership.

"It should be apparent to everyone that we are on the wrong train. This single-species, single-stressor train left the station decades ago and has yet to produce satisfactory results for any species or our long-term water supply reliability. There is no reason to think the next round of narrowly focused actions will be any more beneficial for fish than the last one -- and we know it's more bad news for water supplies and the state and national economy. This week it is Delta smelt, last week it was longfin smelt, and in a few months it will be the salmon. The requirements of these decisions will almost certainly be in conflict with each other, and everything will be in conflict with a healthy economy.

"The only way forward is to get off this train and board a new one with the right destination -- a comprehensive approach that focuses on the ecosystem and a portfolio of solutions, including actions to address all stressors and structural improvements in the water supply system, including conveyance and storage, to reduce conflict between the aquatic environment and water supply reliability. We need to move, on an urgency basis, to adopt such a comprehensive approach that can work for the environment and our economy.

"This must be a priority for the new administration in Washington, D.C. Every day we stay on the wrong train is another day of further ecosystem decline and lost water supplies."
Now go and re-read the Globe and Mail story with that background in mind. California's politicians are too mired in budgetary woes to address the problem --- budgetary woes which are being exacerbated by the level of farm unemployment and business failures caused by their collective inaction. And Congress is too busy trying to impose crazy cap-and-trade schemes and mandated healthcare madness to pay attention to a few more farmers being wiped out. (Besides, the farmers are probably all Republicans.)

Truly these are sad times. Due to the downward spiral effect, as more failures lead to more layoffs, defaults and more failures, they can only get much, much worse before they will begin to get better. The stimulus plan has been great thus far only for Goldman Sachs, whose employees are set to receive average bonuses of $700,000 apiece this year, and for banks and other firms on Wall Street. Meanwhile, your government is printing money to pay interest to its foreign creditors, with no thought for the future inflation that will be inevitable.

And in Fresno, Todd Allen and his family are sitting on 600 acres of land made useless by a probably futile but showy gesture. The gesture was demanded by environmentalists to save a small fish so that bigger, invasive species can have something to eat. This will ensure that as they continue their ecological depredations, the striped and largemouth bass will be well supported. And once they wreak their environmental havoc on the salmon habitat, watch for more drastic environmental measures to protect them.

One spiral leads downward, to economic collapse, poverty and joblessness.

The other spiral leads outward, to spreading ecological collapse, dwindling food supplies, and extinction.

And the politicians fiddle.

When all the pieces start to fit together like this, foresight and hindsight begin to merge. There seems to be no escape from the picture that is forming before our eyes. At least, not until our leadership starts to act responsibly, and to stop making the bad worse.

Hope and change? We got the change which so many seemed to want just nine short months ago. But where's the hope?

[UPDATE 08/01/2009: Now comes word of another population of delta smelt which is unaffected by the pumping, because they thrive in a different portion of the delta. But does that information soften the harshness of the environmentalists' stance? Not on your life.]

[UPDATE 07/31/2009: Not that I need to clinch my point, but the video below shows that the fiddling is going on at all levels. Note especially the level of understanding of farm economics that is on display (and this is just one video in a series!):


  1. If it's a choice between humans and smelt, I am definitely of the mind that it is time for the smelt to take one for the team.

    Several points.

    First, Fresno and the surrounding counties have long held the dubious distinction of being to the late 20th Century what Appalachia was to the Great Depression. Fresno has long held the record of being first in concentration of poverty, outstripping even New Orleans. Fresno has long led the nation in poverty and unemployment, even during the prosperous 90s and 00s.

    Second, I'm of the mind that one reason for this has been the fact that Fresno is a kind of Ellis Island of the 21st Century. My Rotary Club has a partnership with downtown school where the population turnover is something like 120% a year. There is a lot of immigration coming through the Valley.

    One of the things that happens with this is that a lot of money gets syphoned out of the Valley and sent back to Mexico. Mexico could not live without the money sent back from expatriates, but the flip side of Mexico's economic survival is that the money is not spent locally, which has to have a depressing effect.

    Third, I was listening to a Victor Davis Hanson interview where he pointed out that California's water system was designed for a population of about half what it is now. California hasn't seen a dam built in over thirty years. Consequently, it is not surprising that we are reaching a point where it may literally be a smelt v. human question.

    If that's the case, I vote for the smelt to take in the neck. :-)

  2. Bear in mind also that it is this toxic combination of kindergarten ecology and grandstanding politics that is pushing for CO2 cap-n-trade, where Gore will make his next $100 million, thanks to his friends at Goldman-Sachs, at the expense of taxpayers and ratepayers everywhere.

    Since anthropogenic global warming is completely fraudulent, of course, the only concrete effects will be to utterly destroy quiet rural areas and mountain wildernesses with armies of totally useless gargantuan industrial wind turbines (think the Statue of Liberty with a 747 pinned to her nose), and to destroy third-world forests for useless eucalyptus groves (CO2 sinks -- but the ocean currently contains more than 200 times the CO2 of the entire atmosphere) and for palm plantations (oil for biodiesel).

    Love them ecologists. At some point there will be blowback, but probably not before the destruction in lives and happiness is an order of magnitude worse than it is already.