Environment Forum

High and dry on the California farm

At lunchtime in California’s San Joaquin Valley, farmers meet up at Jack’s Prime Time Restaurant, where they can get a good, honest meal … just what one expects from an establishment smack dab in the middle of the most productive farming region in the world.

But the mood at Jack’s is decidely somber. A few days earlier, the farmers in these parts were told not to expect any federally supplied water this year due to a third year of drought and low levels in the reservoirs.  Without water, they can’t plant their lettuce and tomatoes, and they may lose parts of their precious almond and pistachio orchards.  All this land flourished with water brought from hundreds of miles away, snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada.

In reporting for our series on water scarcity in the U.S. West, I was amazed that the top farming region in the nation had not prepared itself better to deal with Mother Nature’s fickle ways with water. But many here feel they would have avoided this predicament were it not for the ”man-made drought” –  new regulations to save endangered fish species by sharply restricting water pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. And there’s a lot of anger at environmentalists who want more water for wildlife habitat and less for farming.

“Everyone’s looking to place blame,” said Jack Minnite, who owns the popular restaurant in the town of Firebaugh. “But if the environmental restrictions on the Delta were lifted, would our problems be solved?”

Probably not. As you can see in Part 4 of the water series, there is no silver bullet for the water scarcity that cloud’s California’s farming future. Climate change is expected to worsen the intensity and frequency of drought in California, leading to drastic diminution of the Sierra snowpack that serves as the state’s largest fresh surface water reserve.  A combination of additional water storage infrastructure, a new canal, more low-water crops and greater conservation could save the industry, experts say. But that will require a lot of compromise and, as processing tomato buyer Frank Pitts says, “laying aside the emotion.”

Cities in U.S. Southwest face thirsty times

The fast-growing U.S. Southwest has a problem: too many people, not enough water.

But then, what do you expect when you build cities like Las Vegas in the middle of a desert?

My colleagues Tim Gaynor and Steve Gorman have done a story on this, looking at the water woes of Los Angeles and Las Vegas. You can see their report here and other stories from our water package here.

Is the U.S. West going the way of parched Australia?

The drought-induced infernos which ravaged parts of Australia earlier this year may be a harbinger of the water challenges coming to the American West.

 ”Think of that (Australia) as California’s future,” water researcher Heather Cooley of California’s Pacific Institute told my colleague Peter Henderson. You can see his report, part one of our series on water scarcity in the U.S. West, here.

Plush green golf courses in the desert, verdant boulevards in Los Angeles and fountains that dance 20 stories high in Las Vegas are very much part of today’s landscape and life in the American West.  As California author James Powell says: “Add water and you have the instant good life.”

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