Stop the presses: Common sense is alive and well in California |

Stop the presses: Common sense is alive and well in California

Common sense might not be dead.

It seems to be alive and well in, of all places, California.

U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger, in Fresno – where agriculture is king – temporarily loosened irrigation pumping limits earlier this year to give farmers in California’s Central Valley additional water for their parched fields.

Fresno County is the country’s leading agricultural county. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, Fresno had $3.73 billion in sale of ag products –

$2.5 billion in crops and $1.2 billion in livestock. The San Joaquin Valley grows most of the nation’s fruits and vegetables.

But three years of drought, leading into the 2010 growing season, devastated the region. Pumping limits on irrigation wells were put in place, following a suit brought by environmental groups, to protect threatened salmon, steelhead and other fish that swim through the freshwater delta into the Pacific Ocean.

Farmers argued the cutbacks caused crop losses, resulting in millions of dollars of loss, environmental damage and lost jobs.

So Wanger temporarily lifted the restrictions, and, according to some reports, found the restrictions – which were also placed on some municipal water supplies – were based on what he called government “guesstimations” that didn’t take into account the widespread “Draconian” impacts to those affected by the restrictions. In his written ruling, Wanger added the restrictions were not supported by fact.

Soon after Wanger’s decision, a Fresno television station did an extensive story on the human cost of the water crisis in the region and noted that in his written summary judgement, Wanger said, in part, that when a federal agency makes a move such as restricting water to farmers, “the agency must prepare an EIS (Environmental Impact Study) where there are substantial questions about whether a project may cause significant degradation of the human environment.”

So the TV station asked the question: Are federal water restrictions significantly degrading the human environment of the west valley? To answer the question, the reporter talked with experts at Fresno State University, the county district attorney, domestic violence experts, food bank executives, medical and health officials, city officials and others.

The bottom line was that crime was up, as was domestic abuse and family violence, more people sought food assistance, new health issues came to light, city sales taxes went down, and, according to a University of California Davis study, more than 21,000 jobs were lost due to the drought, with more than 5,000 specifically lost to the federally mandated water restrictions.

While this spring’s snowpack and rains eased the problem in California, just as it did for northern Colorado, the restrictions, as written, didn’t take into account those changes that can and do have an effect on river flows. And, of course, those river flows, in turn, can have an effect on fish populations, which Wanger pointed out was “a clear scientific” error in not taking those changes into consideration when imposing the restrictions.

If all this sounds vaguely familiar, it should, as several farmers in northern Colorado saw wells shut down or drastically restricted as a result of the same drought. In that case, it was the state that took the step, but what happened in California this past year was almost identical to what happened in northern Colorado.

A good snowpack, combined with spring storms, resulted in more water than this part of the state could handle. In fact, the state lost a lot of water on the South Platte River alone. This year, the amount of water that flowed into Nebraska – 640,000 acre-feet – was almost twice the average flow.

At the same time, water tables were up all over the place, and while state officials denied it, many blamed those increasing levels on well shut-downs.

So maybe it’s time the state take another look at the restrictions and see if those, too, shouldn’t be adjusted. While water from those wells probably wouldn’t have been used in the spring, later in the growing season they may have come in handy for quite a few farmers.

Bill Jackson has covered agriculture in northern Colorado for more than 30 years. If you have ideas for this column, call him at (970) 392-4442.

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