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Column: Right-wingers again demonize the tiny delta smelt to protect Big Agriculture

The delta smelt
Culprit, victim, or bellwether? The delta smelt has been pushed nearly to extinction, a bad signal for the health of the California water ecosystem.
(University of California)

We’ve written before that among the most dangerous natural predators of the delta smelt are conservatives blaming the tiny freshwater fish for a host of ills befalling California’s agricultural Central Valley.

They’ve blamed the unassuming fish for putting farmers out of business across California’s breadbasket, forcing the fallowing of vast acres of arable land, creating double-digit unemployment in agricultural counties, even clouding the judgment of scientists and judges.

Now, with the state Legislature returning to Sacramento with an environmental protection bill tops on its agenda, they’re at it again. The right-wing National Review this weekend featured a screed by its vice president, one Jack Fowler, again pointing the finger at the delta smelt.

The fate of the smelt itself is a distraction; the real issue is the fate of the delta. And the decline of the smelt tells us it’s in trouble.
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“A tiny fish,” Fowler writes, “trumps America’s food needs and the economy of the Central Valley.” Kevin Drum, who pointed us to Fowler’s work, calls it “delta smelt demagoguery,” and he’s right.

Fowler’s piece is an outstanding example of the genre, in its way. For one thing, it’s rather more uninformed than the general run of delta smelt-bashing. Or perhaps it’s merely more cynical. We’ll let you be the judge as we walk you through its points.

Fowler’s main target is a bill known as the California Environmental, Public Health, and Workers Defense Act, or SB 1. The measure passed the Senate on May 29 and three Assembly committees in June and July. It’s now due to be considered by the chamber’s appropriations committee and then, presumably, voted on the Assembly floor. Fowler is convinced that “the Golden State’s Democrat-run, veto-proof legislature” will wave the measure through and it will be promptly signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

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According to Fowler, SB 1 “has been proposed for one reason: Donald Trump is president.” That may be one of the very few indisputably true statements in Fowler’s piece. It doesn’t tell the full story, however. The reason that Trump’s presidency makes SB 1 necessary is that he has consistently moved to undercut protections for water and air, endangered species, coal miners, industrial workers and other wage-earners that were enshrined in law before his inauguration.

When President Trump nominated David Bernhardt for a top-level post at the Interior Department, environmentalists and water experts could see trouble ahead.

SB 1 would protect those safeguards from Trump and his minions. It would establish that if the federal government rolls back regulatory provisions in any of seven federal laws, state agencies will have the authority to maintain California regulations as they were on Jan. 19, 2017 (that is, the day before the Trump inauguration). The seven laws are the Clean Air, Clean Water, Safe Drinking Water, Endangered Species, Fair Labor Standards, Occupational Safety and Health and Coal Mine Health and Safety acts.

As it happens, just Monday the Trump administration announced a rollback of the Endangered Species Act (though it described its action in true Orwellian fashion as “improving” the act). The action was announced by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who as a private attorney had sued the government over the act on behalf of Westlands Water District, a huge agribusiness in the Central Valley.

Delta smelt
Delta smelt in the wild are on the verge of extinction--or already there.
(Los Angeles Times)

By the way, the principal reason that the Golden State has a “Democrat-run, chief veto-proof legislature,” as Fowler puts it, is that the California Republican Party has put itself effectively out of business by promoting racist policies at odds with political realities on the ground. The GOP’s failure to have even a single statewide office-holder or a significant voice in the legislature didn’t happen by accident; it’s the harvest of the seeds the party itself has sowed.

Fowler might notice, too, that the state’s Congressional delegation was cut in half in the 2018 election — to a mere seven seats — for the same reason. Ditto for the fact that the party’s onetime impregnable stronghold, Orange County, now has majority Democratic voter registration.

Most of Fowler’s piece is concerned with California’s water wars, which Fowler appears to believe simply would go away if not for the delta smelt and its heinous champions on “the progressive Left.”

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He writes that SB 1 would “preempt any possible forthcoming federal regulations that would result in people and farms (instead of, seriously, the Pacific Ocean) getting more, already available water.” That, he asserts, would fulfill “radical” bureaucrats’ desire to stop pumping water to the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta for the use of famrers and “deny the flow of fresh water from mountain snowpacks, watersheds, and reservoirs to the famous Central Valley, which, when supplied H2O, puts fruits and vegetables on the world’s tables.”

He adds,"because the pumps kill a threatened fish, the infamous Delta smelt ... billions of gallons of fresh water instead flow from the Delta west, much of its passing under the Golden Gate Bridge on its way into the Pacific Ocean.” This burdens “farmers — or, in the jargon of the Left, ‘billionaire farmers’ [who] grow your tomatoes, celery, almonds, pears, peaches ... you name it.”

Aficionados of California water mythology will recognize this formulation as a farmers’ credo retailed by, among others, Fox News figurehead Sean Hannity and President Trump. So it’s worthwhile to unpack the multiple misrepresentations embedded within.

The Wonderful Company, the corporate arm of Beverly Hills billionaires Stewart and Lynda Resnick, promotes itself incessantly as an exemplar of social responsibility and a guardian of sustainable agriculture.

First, dismissing the term “billionaire farmers” as leftist jargon. My Oxford dictionary defines “jargon” as “difficult to understand” terminology used by a progression or group. Yet the beneficiaries of delta water transfers includes those labeled “billionaire farmers” because that’s what they are. Case in point: the Resnicks of Beverly Hills, who have an estimated net worth of $5.6 billion. They’re the state’s largest almond growers and leaders among the Central Valley’s water recipients. The 50,000 almond and pistachio acres of the Resnick’s Paramount Farms outstripped the second-place growers by 3-to-1 in 2014, the most recent ranking.

Fowler describes these farmers almost as though they’re putting fruits and vegetables “on the world’s tables” out of altruistic devotion, not as part of an industry that collects many hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue every year. Nothing is wrong about turning a profit in agriculture, of course. But Fowler might at least acknowledge that that’s what’s happening, rather than painting farming as a charitable enterprise.

That brings us to the most insidious myth in Fowler’s piece — that water is wasted if it doesn’t flow to the farmers instead of out to the sea. Perhaps Fowler is unaware of the business owners who depend on water not flowing exclusively to Central Valley growers. They include salmon fishers, who depend on water flowing through the state’s rivers and out to the ocean as their lifeblood. They’ve been systematically deprived of their livelihood by the elements and political choices, including decisions aimed at watering the Central Valley instead of coastal waterways where salmon spawn.

Heather Sears has been fishing for salmon out of this unassuming coastal community for nearly two decades.

As for the delta smelt, the assertion that water is being diverted away from the Central Valley simply to preserve the species is the rankest folderol. The smelt is important not merely in itself but as a bellwether of the health of the entire delta ecosystem — and the responsibility of humans as stewards of the environment is to not force species into extinction. As we observed last year, “we care about the delta smelt not entirely for itself, but because its health is an indicator of the overall health of the delta ecosystem — and the signal it has flashed is alarming.”

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Things have gotten worse since those words were written. The late-2017 index of delta smelt in California turned up only two samples; last year the number was zero.

Fowler’s screed largely reflects the right-wing echo chamber that has demonized the delta smelt for the benefit of Big Agriculture. To support his case against SB 1, for instance, he cites the California Water Alliance, which he says aims to get “to understand the legislation’s impact.” Possibly Fowler doesn’t know what the California Water Alliance is, so we’ll tell him. It’s not an “alliance” among water users, who would include fishers and urban dwellers, as well as growers. It’s the farm lobby. Of the 17 board members the organization listed on its 2016 federal tax filing, the latest available, 17 were farmers, farm equipment dealers or farm lenders. By our math, that’s 100%.

Fowler wants us to think that SB 1 is a product of leftists’ “Trump obsession.” Perhaps so. It’s the product of concern that he’s going to wreck workplace and environmental standards purely for the benefit of the narrow interests who push destructive policies through lies and misrepresentation.


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