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Water on the Brain and the Politics of Shortage

I confess; I’ve been playing. I spent the past week driving up the California coast to get to a magnificent resort in Boyes Hot Springs about an hour north of San Francisco. I’d forgotten how spectacularly beautiful the coast is between Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz. If you know anything about the geography of California, you know Highway 1 along the coast isn’t the fastest route from point A to point B.

I didn’t have the luxury of taking three days to make the return drive from Sonoma to San Diego. I went east out of the San Francisco area and headed for Interstate 5 where I could set the cruise control at 0.001 mph below the speeding ticket limit and get a straight shot into San Diego. I’ve driven that road many times over the past thirty five years and remember it lined with agricultural fields and orchards from Stockton to Bakersfield. The San Joachin valley is commonly referred to as the bread basket of America. A substantial percentage of our nation’s food is grown in central California. Or should I say it used to be?

Barren fields were everywhere. Orchards with dead and dying almond trees could be seen for miles. Soon I saw the first of the many signs I would see that proclaimed “Congress Created Dust Bowl”. For the next few hours, we sped along and saw fallow fields with their yellow signs blaming congress for their plight. By the time we reached the Bakersfield area, we were stunned at the quantity of barren acreage we had seen.

When I arrived home, I called my friend Mr. Google and researched the issue. I found that nearly a half million acres of crop producing land have been allowed to go barren. The root cause is simple enough for even a Rush Limbo fan to understand; the water has been turned off.

After that it becomes substantially more complex and clouded. Some say the drought conditions have resulted in a water shortfall and that the farmers have had to reduce water use. If the answer were that simple, it certainly begs the question as to why home building permits haven’t been restricted and golf courses remain green.

Others take it a step further and say the State of California has stopped providing big agri-business with water subsidized with tax payer dollars and business is revolting against increased costs by letting fields go fallow. I did find it interesting that the fields removed from production were those that fronted the highly travelled Interstate highway. I don’t have the data, but my casual observation was the percentages of barren versus productive land seemed highest along the highway where the political signage would get the biggest audience.

Some people argue that water shortage is the result of the government putting a two inch smelt fish on the endangered species list. They say water supplies are adequate, but pumps had to be shut down to protect the fish. Others say that if the fish isn’t saved, the entire ecosystem of the area could collapse and the California economy could be decimated as a result.

I haven’t researched the issue adequately to say who is right and who is wrong with any degree of certainty. FOX News claims the fish is the problem so the scientist side of Allen Sherpa tends to side with the fish; I’ve never known Sean Hannity to be smarter that a two inch smelt. But unlike Hannity, I am capable and willing to say I’d have to study the matter more before taking a definitive stand.

The bigger and more frightening lesson I discern from the debate on this issue is this, in times of crisis, humans may not be smart enough to come together and act in their own best interests. In this case, the partisans are big agri-business, environmental organizations, poor farm workers, politicians, bankers and perhaps to a lesser extent, developers and other secondary business people. In the time I’ve looked into the question, I’ve seen everyone arguing only their own side. The rule of the day is self over group. Agri-business claims we’ll be importing all our food from China and South America. Hannity claims the fish shouldn’t be protected and implies it is because it is only two inches long. Farm workers say they want their jobs. Environmental groups say the loss of the fish could result in job losses ten times greater than those experienced so far in the small farming towns. Everyone seems to be pointing at everyone else and saying the other person or group should be cut out of the picture to the benefit of himself.

What does this say about our ability to confront even bigger problems looming on the horizon? What about global climate change? What about destruction of the rain forests? Can we save the oceans and prevent further “dead zones” like the one in the Gulf of Mexico? If the way the California water crisis is being handled foreshadows our ability as a species to deal with the tougher questions, you’d better get out your lawn chairs, get a good seat and watch the rest of the parade. It may not go on that much longer.

If the world were truly made up of only four elements as some of the ancients argued, earth, wind, rain and fire, which of the four could you sacrifice in time of hardship? I’m afraid you need them all. If we don’t figure it out soon, we risk the same fate as the people of the Easter Islands. We’ve got to get smarter if we’re to live longer.

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