Today, Earth Day, April 22, is a time for renewed commitment to protecting the environment in a serious, commonsense way that balances the interests of people and the economy with the need to preserve nature’s vitality and variety.
It is also a time to celebrate the people who grow the food and fiber for our nation and the world, because environmental protection is a priority for them, day-in and day-out.
For farmers, ranchers and dairyman, being stewards of the earth is part of the job; it comes with their calling. They are dependent on the land and water not only to provide a healthy, safe food supply, but to support their own families and communities.
Far too often we hear negative rhetoric about impersonal, indifferent “corporate agriculture.” But let’s not forget that in California 97 percent of farms are family owned and operated.
And consider all the environmental benefits that agriculture brings: open space; habitat for birds, animals and fish; food sources for countless varieties of species. The air is purified by crops and trees, through photosynthesis. In fact, agricultural land throughout California currently boasts more than 150 million trees, along with hundreds of millions of grapevines, according to figures compiled by the California Farm Water Coalition.
The cycles of tilling, planting, and watering also nourish and preserve the soil, warding off dust storms and their horrific environmental effects.
Given their front-line role as defenders of the environment, it is sadly ironic that farmers in much of California are being denied water because of government rules that are promulgated in the name of the “environment.”
We have been suffering a natural drought this year, no question. But it has been made worse because of the regulatory drought that has been going on for more than half a decade, caused by misguided decisions under the federal Endangered Species Act.
In particular, millions of gallons of water have been intentionally withheld from productive irrigation in California’s agricultural heartland, the San Joaquin Valley. The aim has been to help a tiny fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the delta smelt. But this species has been declining for years, and hurting farmers and other water consumers hasn’t helped the smelt.
As a state, we were once aware of the importance of saving for rainy day – and for days and years when there wouldn’t be rain. In the 1950s and 1960s, California invested in vast, sophisticated infrastructure projects for storing and delivering water. Where, then, is the water that should have been saved behind our dams for dry years such as this one?
Well, from December 2012 to February 2013 alone, at least 800,000 acre-feet of water was allowed to flow out to the sea, as part of the smelt protection scheme.
That water could have irrigated 200,000 acres of cropland, and served the needs of more than 800,000 families.
The harm isn’t confined to people, farms, and the larger economy. Withholding water harms species as well as people — in the case of the San Joaquin Valley, for instance, less water for iconic species like the San Joaquin kit fox and the Western Screech Owl.
You can drive down I-5 and see the signs “Congress Created Dust Bowl” and “Water Equals Jobs,” but the most eye opening part of the drive is the hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland lying fallow.
The problem that we must address is the drought of common sense in our regulatory bureaucracies. The need we must supply is a genuine environmental sensitivity that recognizes the role that healthy agriculture, and a healthy economy, play in the health of the earth.
Ashley Indrieri is Public Outreach Coordinator and Grant Writer with Pacific Legal Foundation.