Sunday, September 27, 2009




You couldn’t really blame farmers and farm workers in the vast stretches of west San Joaquin Valley these days if they were muttering something like “water czar, schmater czar."

For even though U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar came to Fresno and Coalinga at midsummer to announce that he’s making his chief deputy secretary an ambassador to the big players in California’s water crisis, nothing has changed.

More than 500,000 San Joaquin Valley acres remain fallowed, pulled out of production because of lack of water. Unemployment still approaches 40 percent in farming towns like Mendota, Huron, Dos Palos and Firebaugh. The yellow-and-black signs posted in dry fields beside Interstate 5 that read “Congress Created Dust Bowl” – those aren’t coming down anytime soon. And there’s the prospect that the huge pumps at the south end of the delta formed by the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers will be stopped again next spring, just as they were this spring.

For not only is the minnow-like delta smelt – whose survival is the goal of the pump shutdowns responsible for much of the drought in the west valley – still endangered despite discovery of a copious colony near a large island in the delta, but its slightly larger relative the longfin smelt also now has that designation.

Salazar says he wants to improve things by expediting one idea that looks promising: The so-called “two gates” proposal, a $160 million plan that would use moveable gates to screen threatened fish like the two smelt species out of water flows as they are sucked into the pumps.

That’s as constructive a suggestion as the water crisis of the last few years has produced, one that’s eminently doable and would not force either side to compromise. But state legislators couldn’t even agree on something as simple as that while trying to pass corrective water measures this summer.

Salazar also became the latest to assert that he’s trying to “bring all of the key federal agencies to the table” in trying to make water peace. Of course, they have all been at a bunch of tables together for many years, with seemingly countless Bay/Delta task forces and committees convening, issuing reports and not solving much over the last 20 years or so.

Not that there’s a lack of sensible ideas out there. One suggests fallowing of thousands of acres in the west valley that are so tainted with toxic chemicals they can’t be farmed responsibly, then passing their water rights to other farmers until the land is cleansed. Another is to increase use of recycled laundry and dish water for lawns and industry throughout the state, reducing demand considerably because lawns and cooling processes are far more thirsty than people.

Yet another would see California built more desalination plants to take advantage of the virtually endless seawater lapping at on the state’s doorstep. But that hasn’t yet become cost effective in most places.

It also makes sense to add new dams and a peripheral canal around the delta, facilities to catch runoff from winter rains and spring snowmelt which now drains into the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay without accomplishing much.

But even with plenty of federal economic stimulus dollars around and earmarked for infrastructure, there’s no consensus on any of these items, so nothing gets done. Plus, in a time of extra-lean budgets, there’s little state money available to match the federal dollars.

Farmers say the nation’s food supply is endangered as they scrub plans to grow seasonal crops while using precious water to ensure some permanent plants like fruit trees and grapevines survive the dry period.

And politicians posture. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who previously showed little interest in the plight of farmers, farm workers and the businesses that depend on them, suddenly scheduled a visit and a photo op in troubled Mendota after he was upbraided by farmers at a Fresno appearance where he had planned to ignore water and talk only budget.

Salazar names a czar with no real powers.

What’s needed in the water wars is both the common sense to move quickly on measures that can be done immediately and the sense of alarm that would be needed to put someone truly powerful in charge of an anti-drought campaign. If Salazar and his boss, President Obama, really want to get something done, they could appoint someone more prominent than a deputy secretary as a de facto “ambassador” to California. How about Vice President Joe Biden, who has no firm responsibilities in Washington, but does have Obama’s ear far more frequently than Salazar?

That’s just one possibility. The bottom line is that it’s not enough for officials like Schwarzenegger and Salazar to talk, or even to spend a relatively insignificant sum like $160 million, which might buy some fish screens, but won’t put a dent in the cost of a dam.

Real action is needed, and soon, or the San Joaquin Valley, still the crop cornucopia of America, will lose some of its most talented farmers, farm workers will leave and the nation will find itself importing a lot more food than it already does.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit

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