Deceptive arguments are being made in California's water wars

Who needs absinthe, vodka or even a six-pack of beer? Judging from the quality of our debate on natural resource policy, all it takes to addle the political mind in California is water.

We're talking about the water that flows to us from the mountains and the rivers, via canal or aqueduct, irrigating our fields, maintaining our aquatic habitats, and sustaining daily life in the cities and suburbs.

There isn't enough of it to be exploited with abandon as we've done in the past, and nothing we do will increase the raw volume we receive from nature.

"It's increasingly apparent that there's not enough water for everyone to do all the things they want," says Peter H. Gleick, co-founder and president of the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based environmental group, "especially as inefficiently as they've done in the past."

Apportioning this finite resource among cities, farms and the environment will require well-informed discussions, conducted responsibly and in good faith, and thoughtful investments in conservation technologies.

A perfect opportunity, in other words, for political posturing. Take it away, Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Granite Bay):

"This Congress and this administration seems to have adopted the position that the government's principal objective should not be to create abundance, but rather to ration shortages . . . to indulge the environmental left's pet project, the delta smelt," he told a congressional hearing in late January.

The hearing's subject was the economic crisis created by a multiyear drought in parts of California's Central Valley. Hundreds of thousands of arable acres are being fallowed for lack of irrigation supplies, and the unemployment rate in communities such as Mendota has reached 40%.

McClintock's argument appears to be that the fault lies with the "environmental left" and its puppets in Washington, who place the fate of a silvery, 2-inch fish above the needs of human beings. McClintock is California's preeminent member of the don't-confuse-me-with-facts caucus. But his spiel is echoed across the political spectrum.

Not long ago, Sean Hannity threw an on-air conniption about the smelt-before-people policy. Former EBay CEO Meg Whitman, who is seeking the GOP nomination for governor in California, told a Riverside County audience: "We have to come down on the side of people . . . we have to let the water flow into the Central Valley." Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) even proposed amending the Endangered Species Act to muscle it out of the way of the valley's farmers, though she later backed off.

All this makes the Central Valley the epicenter of fact-free policy-mongering on water. So let's take a short quaff of reality.

Yes, there's a water shortage in parts of the Central Valley, especially the so-called west side, and yes, it has forced up the unemployment rate in many communities. But the valley is by no means a dust bowl, as it was portrayed on Hannity's show. Though Fresno County officials projected 2009 to be a "dire year" in production, that needs to be measured against the record harvest of 2008, when the county's $5.7-billion production value represented a nearly 6% increase over 2007.

True, there are portions of the valley suffering from drought more than others. Chief among them is west side acreage covered by the giant 600,000-acre Westlands Water District, which hugs the eastern flank of Interstate 5 for about 80 miles just west of Fresno. Westlands claims to have taken nearly 200,000 acres out of production last year, and its farmers are leaders among those cursing the delta smelt.

Yet as my colleague Bettina Boxall reported last week, the west side's problems derive far more from its junior standing in the hierarchy of legal water rights than the claims of a minnow-like fish.

Some rights are rooted in 19th-century legal doctrine, and some were perfected when the federal government, in building Friant Dam on the San Joaquin River in 1942, guaranteed downstream users that they would get as much water as they did before the river ran dry.

In dry periods, like the last few years, the federal government has still delivered to those users 100% of their contracted supply. This year Westlands, which sits at the bottom of the rights waterfall, may receive as little as 5%. (These figures are from the U.S. Reclamation Bureau’s forecast for 2010, issued last month; the recent wet spell may improve the picture but won't make up for the long-term drought.)

These cutbacks unquestionably drive unemployment higher throughout the valley. But by how much? Mendota's truly tragic level of unemployment has been attracting news reporters (including Hannity's) like alfalfa attracts bees, but they almost never point out that this condition is chronic, not novel.

Mendota's annual unemployment rate has dipped below 25% only twice in the last 10 years, according to state statistics; in 2003, when the federal deliveries were better than 75% of contract supply, Mendota unemployment still approached 32%.

What about the claim that state and federal officials are diverting into the ocean billions of gallons of water the farmers desperately need, just to save a 2-inch fish?

This is perhaps the most deceptive argument made in the water wars. The truth is that the devastation that dams and wasteful agricultural policies have wreaked in the Sacramento delta ecosystem has produced an economic holocaust all its own, just conveniently out of sight of the valley farmers and their mouthpieces.

For one thing, it has destroyed a salmon fishery once worth billions of dollars and cost as many as 23,000 jobs. Commercial salmon fishing on the California coast has been barred for the last three years because of the collapse of the chinook salmon population -- caused in large part by the degradation of the delta -- and may be shut down again this year. A preliminary decision is imminent, with a final ruling due next month.

"Unemployment among salmon fishermen is 100%," Larry Collins, a salmon man himself and vice president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Assns., told me. "In 25 years we've gone from a fleet of 5,000 boats to maybe 400. You stand on the docks in San Francisco, it's like a ghost town."

"We're looking at an ecosystem that's in severe peril," says Rodney R. McInnis, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "It's not just the delta smelt that are affected, but the salmon runs and killer whales and coastal communities."

Two of the four seasonal salmon runs are in danger of extinction because their habitat has been lost to dams, he says.

No amount of political bluster will solve these conflicts. Nor will an approach that treats the needs of every community of water users as superior to everyone else's, that advocates the building of new dams that just repeat or magnify mistakes committed in building the old ones, or that reduces a complex issue to a comic-book conflict between human beings and a tiny fish.

"The fish," says Gleick, "are being scapegoated."

Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at mhiltzik@latimes.com, read previous columns at www.latimes.com/hiltzik, and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.

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