By John C. Dyer, Guest Contributor
(This article first appeared as a two part series on WhirledView February 11 and 18, 2010.)
How is water like booze? The big question is, when to say when.
On January 21st, 2010, The Economist ran an article entitled, “The Appalachia of the West,” subtitled, “California’s Agricultural Heartland threatens to become a wasteland.” The article quoted at length “Ike (sic) Chrisman,” a Visalia rancher/farmer, Bill Phillimore, manager of Paramount Farms near Bakersfield, and Carol Whiteside, founder of the Great Valley Center.Map of California left: Perry-Castaneda Map Collection, University of Texas.
Mike Chrisman is also California’s
Secretary of Resources and former Undersecretary of the California
Department of Food and Agriculture. Bill Phillimore, a graduate of the
University of California at Davis is a talented manager who has for
some years successfully managed one of this nation’s greatest farming
operations. Carol Whiteside is a long time advocate for an
“agricultural renaissance.” All are well regarded, personable and
talented people of standing in the agricultural community, indeed
Somewhat less than even-handed treatment
Even the most ardent agricultural advocate would recognize the Economist article
was somewhat less than even-handed in its treatment of this subject. As
one, let me first apologize to Appalachia for their use as a negative
comparison, and an exaggerated comparison at that. Not only did the
Article cite only these three long time “aggies,” it failed to cite
statistics and independent sources for its disaster scenario. More
importantly, it failed to note the small matter of a bond measure which
just happens to be pending voter authorization.
The Legislature recently enacted,
and the Governor signed into law, legislation authorizing the
construction of facilities to capture, store, and divert water from
Northern California, which is relatively well supplied with water, to
the both the relative deserts of the southern Central Valley and
Southern California’s population centers. This legislation is a
compromise years in the making. Its passage has generally been seen a
political triumph, whether or not one regards it as a policy triumph.
A skunk in the woodpile: money and an $11.2 billion bond issue
There is one little skunk in the
woodpile. The legislation requires money to implement at a time when
California’s Treasury are pockets turned inside and out and empty. The
price tag is in the multi-billions of dollars. That means bonds. In
California such a bond requires direct voter approval.
Water under the bridge?
The peripheral canal and the
circumstances that ensured its defeat may be, pardon the pun, water
under the bridge. But it is not as if there is not another side to tell
than the one told by the Economist. Even the most ardent advocate for agriculture understands this. Perhaps this awareness may lie behind the placement in the Economist
of this feature-like article on the maybe making of Appalachia West. It
is interesting to note that while Aggies are only too keenly aware of
the struggle to make the diversion plan “a happening thing,” the Economist did not seem to be. Certainly it failed to mention it.
An observer, then, could be forgiven for taking a cynical view of the statements made by the Secretary, Mr. Phillimore, and Ms. Whiteside. However, Secretary Chrisman, Mr. Phillimore, and Ms. Whiteside are objectively correct (if in a toned down way). The parallel to Appalachia (intended I suspect to invoke the most economically blighted areas of Appalachia rather than the entire region) is a bit over the top. But, simply, there is not enough water captured by California’s system to meet the needs of the Valley’s agriculture, Southern California’s massive population, and the rest of the state. There has been widespread drought for years now. Farmers have taken unhappy countermeasures as a consequence. All this has been well documented in recent years. It is not a secret in a political closet.
Values assumed not discussed
The question then turns to values. The article assumes those rather than discussing them. The values assumed are those of the Secretary, Mr. Phillimore, and Ms. Whiteside. Secretary, Mr. Phillimore, and Ms. Whiteside share a view common among those whose life is agriculture that this situation is not a good thing. I share that view.
The Valley does need more water or its economy and agricultural production will, not may, but will, have to shrink. Regardless of what one may think about further expansion, the question today is the “retirement of assets,” a sanitary term that summarily categorizes the loss of the investments of a lifetime of hard work. The stability of literally thousands of families and an economic “earner” for California are at stake. That much is no exaggeration.
How did this come to be? Climate change may be a factor, but the biggest factor is obvious -- poorly restrained and managed growth in both water intensive agriculture and Southern California’s massive population centers. Setting aside the population growth in Southern California, these circumstances came to be in the Valley through systematic, extensive and intensive demands on nature to underwrite the production of more and more, something Mr Phillimore’s operations exemplify in their efficiency and productivity. Photo right: Aerial photo of California Central Valley by David Klein, Free Large Photos.
Poorly restrained and managed growth
It also came to be through the expansions to 100,000 cow ranches. It came to be as demand escalated for the resources needed to produce thousands of tons of product grown and harvested year after year with greater and greater efficiency but also greater and greater demand on nature’s capacity to sustain.
The Economist article
did not mention how gross agricultural product has grown even in the
past 15 years. California’s Valley has long been one of this nation’s
most productive agricultural preserves. Today, it produces staggering
numbers from farm and ranching operations. These operations are
frequently water intensive, especially so-called “production crops”
like cotton. These are thirsty enterprises.
But a public policy should not be simply assumed into being as the reversal of exigent circumstances. I have no question that the existing levels of production require more water than they are receiving. But the most important public policy consideration is a little different than the one into which the Article would back the reader.
Assume the bond issue passes - but what happens down the road?
There are more questions. Production aside, what does California do when the population of Southern California alone can consume all the water captured in California and the Colorado River basin? From what resource will Southern California draw then? Who will pay for that? How will that be financed?
Not theoretical questions
are not theoetical questions. The best predictor of the future is the
past. Throughout the past, as new resources were thrown at agriculture
and the cities, production and population increased. A plan based on
today’s need will not meet that expansion and no restraint has been
imposed or is likely to be imposed in California’s often
anti-governmental regulatory climate. Moreover, while every problem has
a solution, every solution has at least one problem. These have not yet
been reckoned. (Photo left: threshers drawn by mule teams, Hogin Family Ranch, Minturn, California, early 1900s. Hogin Family Archves.)
plan to be financed by the upcoming bond may postpone the day of
reckoning but it will not break the chain of events that pushes
California ever onward toward that day. By that time, it seems
entirely possible based on the general decline in the economy of
California that the resources needed to manage the day of reckoning
will be spent. If this upcoming project is to be more than politicians
and big interests buying themselves breathing room through an election
cycle or two, the real public policy question raised by the dilemma
described so passionately by Mike Chrisman, Bill Phillimore, and Carol
Whiteside must be addressed.
But neither the Article nor the Legislation appear to do so.
The real question is when to say when. What levels of production and
population are sustainable, given the amount of water that can be
projected to be or become available to California in the future? What
is the appropriate balance between environmental needs, environmental
capacity, production and population?
These are not new questions. They were identified in President Carter’s Global 2000 Report a generation ago. A generation gone by and hundreds of facilitators working over a period of decades to bring together the “CAL FED” Project which was supposed to answer those questions, and the questions appear to have gone on the back burner reserved for issues not resolvable.
When to say when? The Economist Article lacks the needed information.
The upcoming ballot measure deserves careful study by every Californian. The Economist Article
does not provide the kind of information citizens need to choose
wisely. I should disclose that, if I were to take a position, I would
probably join with Secretary Chrisman et al in vigorously arguing the
Valley needs more water. It is not right to simply abandon existing
production to the tender mercies of Malthus’ laws. The Legislature and
the Governor should be commended for recognizing this need even if one
disagrees with the particularly strategy they have taken for both
framing and resolving the problem.
But the debate cannot end there and I must respect that others may well conclude it is not appropriate to invest more taxpayer money in rescuing agriculture and Southern California from overbuilding. I must respect the view that this new bond measure comes at a time when the treasury cannot cope with its current obligations. It is not where I would draw the line but I must respect that the line may be drawn there.
love agriculture. I grew up with farm families in the very region about
which Mike, Bill and Carol speak so passionately and eloquently. Each
day I went to work when I was counsel for the Department of Food and
Agriculture, I spent a portion of the day thinking about the boys with
whom I went bowling every week in a small rural farm town near Fresno,
only one of whom remains in agriculture today. All those families have
had to leave farming since I was a boy.
But I cannot fool myself. I cannot see an unlimited future ahead. There
are limitations to what nature can provide. We are up against them. The
real question California must tackle to deal with its water problems,
its runaway demand from population growth as well as intensive farming,
is, as with booze, when to say when.
Please note that
I write only my own opinion and nothing in what I have written should
be considered the view of anyone with whom I have worked in the past. I
have not reviewed this commentary with anyone outside of Whirled View.
August 31, 2007 John Dyer retired after 34 years in public service.
During his years of service Mr. Dyer was actively involved in several
major agricultural issues, including the 2003 Exotic Necastle Disease
Outbreak, the perennial drought issues affecting the Valley, the 2006
E-Coli outbreaks in Spinach and Raw Milk. He crafted or was active in
the public policy response to many of these issues, including
California’s Animal Quarantine laws and regulations, the California
Performance Review, the Leafy Green Marketing Agreement, and the audits
of California’s Marketing boards and commissions.