Welcome to the July Agribusiness issue of NorthBay biz magazine. Also this month, we have a special report on residential and commercial real estate. Given California’s bipolar nature, primarily driven by the tech industry’s boom-or-bust business cycles, it’s a pleasure to focus on the more traditional and much more stable agriculture industry. In the North Bay, the ag community not only sets the tone for the economy but also the rhythm of local life. So please enjoy all the stories, special features and columns as we attempt to capture the spirit of what makes life here in the North Bay so special.
Think back a few years, as the entire state was mired in the throes of a severe, multi-year drought and local government officials implored residents to reduce their water consumption by 25 percent to combat the shortage. Amazingly, local residents changed their use habits and the voluntary goal was met—a triumph for communities working together for the common good.
Officials were glowing in their praise of meeting the goal and forecast the water use reduction would prevent more draconian measures. What they failed to mention, however—reinforcing the adage that no good deed goes unpunished—was that, because of the reduced water consumption, everyone’s water bills would have to be increased. You see, now that everyone is using less water, the fees collected are insufficient to cover the water agency’s costs. Consequently, everyone’s sacrifice was rewarded by having to pay more for using less water. Only in California.
Happily, while this winter’s rainfall didn’t definitively end the drought, it certainly alleviated its worst effects by refilling reservoirs and recharging groundwater in the North Bay. However, our water problems aren’t going away. Simply put, water policy in this state ensures drought conditions will endure. In fact, it’s not much of a stretch to say that the drought is actually manmade.
Let’s start with this fact: Because of deliberate efforts to protect fish, half of the rain that fell this winter will flow into the ocean instead of being stored for the dry summer to come. Billions of gallons of water will flow through rivers and out to sea instead of irrigating crops or serving the needs of communities.
Despite California’s robust population growth over the past 35 years, which vastly increased the state’s water needs, California government, in its water policy wisdom, has responded by removing 30 dams to improve fish habitats, resulting in the loss of hundreds of billions of gallons water storage capacity. Though many proposals have been floated over time to replace this lost storage capacity, nothing’s been done. Just one proposed project in Colusa County in the 1980s would have provided 650 million gallons of storage.
Couple this with the trillions of gallons of water that have been flushed through California rivers in recent years (in an effort to support fish populations) and you begin to see why, to a large extent, the state’s water problems are largely manmade. From the San Joaquin River Delta, more than one trillion gallons of water has found its way out to sea since 2008. This waste of a precious resource is being done in a failing effort to save the Delta Smelt, often described as a waste fish. This is water diverted from irrigating Central Valley farms and the population bases in Southern California and the Bay Area.
Apparently, it doesn’t matter that biologists recently said the smelt will soon be extinct, since water policy hasn’t changed despite this news. So the economic and social consequences continue. In the Central Valley, where unemployment is double the statewide average, hundreds of thousands of prime farmland acreage lies fallow because of water use restrictions. Jobs are lost and the economy is harmed, but water continues to flow to a small fish that can’t be saved. What sane society would set and enforce a policy with such dire effects on its citizens for such dubious returns?
Water policy urgently needs to be changed to find a better balance so human and economic benefits have equal footing with the environment when considering the merits of water infrastructure projects. Environmental groups have imposed a virtual moratorium on water projects for decades by threatening to or actually suing under the Endangered Species Act. The needs of people and the economic prosperity of communities shouldn’t always come in last when considering proper policy.
That’s it for now. Enjoy this month’s magazine.
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