Bakersfield columnist gets real

You don’t expect a breath of fresh air from Bakersfield. But columnist Lois Henry provides one. Henry denounces the political Kabuki of south-Valley Republicans, who tried to gut water regulations again the other day, with the help of House Speaker John Boehner. 

Her column goes right ot the heart of the matter: farmers in her region have overplanted permanent crops which require permanent water to which they simply do not have the legal rights. And which Mother Nature is not providing anybody anyway.

The money grafs:

“Drought or no drought, I have to wonder if we’ve been looking at delta water through pomegranate-colored glasses, so to speak.

“I’ve had this conversation with several local agricultural water district folks and have been surprised by their answers.

“I don’t argue that we’ve over-planted. We’ve extended ourselves on surface water,” Eric Averett, general manager for the Rosedale Rio-Bravo Water Storage District, told me recently as we discussed groundwater management.

“He even noted that some districts, such as Semitropic Water Storage District, have already implemented a program to buy and retire land.

“But we didn’t do it in a vacuum,” Averett said of how farmland was developed here. “We haven’t been completely irresponsible. We’ve done it based on (water reliability) reports from DWR (the California Department of Water Resources).”

“And, he reminded me, so have cities. Some grew wildly in the pre-recession years.

“That may be true, but I was pretty shocked when I looked over the Kern County crop reports at how much acreage has been converted to, or newly developed for, permanent crops in recent years.

“Especially since it happened during our last drought and in the face of regulations that restricted more and more water coming out of the delta.

“We now have more than 415,000 acres planted in permanent crops.

“Permanent crops increased by nearly 68,000 acres between 2008 and 2012, according to the most recent crop report available. Most of that increase came between 2010 and 2012.

“That’s right about the same time farmers and ag water districts were screaming about the infamous delta smelt and salmon biological opinions that severely curtailed water exports.

“Planting more almonds and pistachios was either extremely short-sighted or a gamble farmers were willing to take considering the high prices and extended markets overseas.

“At any rate, I think it’s important to remember that the State Water Project, which brings water down through the California Aqueduct tucked into Kern’s west side farmland, wasn’t actually intended as “new” water for substantially increased farming.

“It was mainly intended for drinking water to southland cities and to relieve pressure on Central Valley groundwater basins, which were already overdrafted in the 1950s and 1960s.”

Boom. 

It was flabbergasting to me and to many in my region when Hannity gave a platform to farmers with the most junior water rights — rights that entitle them to water only in the wettest years, when there is surplus — and they complained that their permanent crops were wilting. Why, if you have rights only to intermittent water, would you plant permanent crops?

 

If the DWR told farmers there would be water it is even more mismanaged than I thought.

I like and respect my Valley brethren down there, but I confess there are things about them I don’t understand. It’s not the urban/farming disconnect. I own a farm. It’s the hint of epistemic closure that hovers over the region. Of being in a bubble where only regional values and interests matter. Which of course is a recipe for political defeat.

If legislators such as Rep. Devin Nunes would like to win one now and then, they should acknowledge that good legislation starts by surveying all stakeholders and balancing their interests. Instead they play to win the whole pot at the expense of our region. That may get them re-elected, but it puts them on the ugly side of water politics. Torpedo the restoration of the wonderful San Joaquin River? Really?

It seems to me Tea Party conservatism is simply rejects aspects of modernity such as water cutbacks based on environmental regulations. But that is the future, whether Kern County farmers want to hear it or not, and whether politicians pander to that constituency or not. 

South-Valley farmers have convinced themselves frivolous environmental regulations caused their water cutback woes. Everybody from the Republican congressmen down there to Fox News assures them such is the case. Henry is doing them a favor by dispelling this delusion. 

 

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    Michael Fitzgerald

    Mike Fitzgerald is The Record’s award-winning metro columnist. His column runs in the paper three times a week. Born in San Francisco, he was raised in Stockton. His column covers diverse beats including, sometimes, the offbeat. Read Full
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