Farmers and Fish

by Don Boudreaux on September 4, 2009

in Environment, Law

The Pacific Legal Foundation is suing for sanity in California.

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Anonymous September 4, 2009 at 4:18 pm

Don, I’m surprised to see you supporting the Pacific Legal Foundation’s suit in this case. Don’t California farmers’ water allocations represent a huge government subsidy that is supporting unproductive activity (to wit, farming in an area during a season that is climatologically unsuited for it)? It would seem like curtailing those allocations would be the right thing do do. Admittedly, the Endangered Species Act isn’t the ideal vehicle for bringing that about, but better the right decision for the wrong reason that the wrong decision for the right reason, right?

Anonymous September 4, 2009 at 4:55 pm

Fair point. One piece of gov’t. silliness competing against another. The principles on which to choose which piece of silliness to ‘support’ are absent.

Anonymous September 4, 2009 at 8:22 pm

A comment on the WSJ story hit the nail on the head here. The point was that this is river water – fresh water that does not require any treatment other than moving it from where it is to where it is needed. The commenter suggested that we should use every drop that we can before it hits the ocean.

My guess is that the farmers would be willing to take on the costs of the pumping stations etc. without government being involved at all.

The thing that throws me on this is that there has not been some sort of engineering solution to the problem of turning delta smelt into fish bits. It seems like a straightforward design challenge that would be a good project for a college engineering program. I am sure that a technical solution is being worked on, but the time in between now and when that can be instituted should not be a time where we destroy this valuable farmland.

Anonymous September 4, 2009 at 8:45 pm

If the government were not involved, much of that water would never reach the California farmers, pumping stations notwithstanding. It is only the intervention of government that reserves that water for Californians by preventing people upstream from using it first.

And at least in southern California we already do use all that water before it reaches the ocean; most seasons the Colorado river no longer reaches the Gulf of California. I’m not sure whether the situation in the San Joaquin Valley is that dire, but it seems clear that farming there during the summer requires more irrigation than could be reliably provided.

Finally, it is not clear that this is “valuable farmland” that we are “destroying.” Certainly it can be made productive through irrigation, but only at the cost of denying the water to someone else. When you view the situation through that lens you start to see that water rights out west are another form of government largess that some California farmers have come to view as an entitlement. A better solution would be to auction the water allocation each season; then we would see if agriculture really is the best use this land can be put to.

The crying shame in all of this is that it took another government agency to challenge water welfare in California. No private entity has the clout.

Anonymous September 4, 2009 at 8:55 pm

Thanks Link. That was a very helpful answer – we easterners have trouble understanding what water rights in the west are like. My brother lives in Las Vegas and he says the usual saying is that, “whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.”

Your reply at first did not address my question about a technical solution, but in truth the political players may prefer to use the impasse re: the delta smelt as a convenient means to cut back on water that they just as soon would see go elsewhere anyway.

Again, thanks for your well-reasoned response.

Incuhed September 4, 2009 at 5:29 pm

The WSJ to make a stronger case between the allocation decision and subsequent unemployment. Agricultural unemployment is down across the board in CA and here in AZ. El Centro and Yuma have the top jobless rates in the country, and their economies are heavy on ag. These areas are close to the Mexican border, which probably explains much variation, but neverthless southern CA agriculture is hurting much more than the central valley. I don’t agree that a smelt should take precedence over people, but this report fails to make a convincing connection.

Incuhed September 4, 2009 at 5:32 pm

Should be “WSJ needs to”

Bill September 4, 2009 at 5:43 pm

What is seen and not seen. No one has really spoken up for the commercial and recreational fishing industries, which are the losers in all the government run water-pumping schemes to farm formerly untillable lands. Allowing governments to destroy the salmon runs in choosing agriculture over fishing is IMO, akin to the Kelo decision. Granted this has all happened incrementally and over several decades.

Anonymous September 5, 2009 at 2:18 am

All this talk that “we” should do this, or “we” should do that! Listen to yourselves! Seeking answers through government fiat! “We” shouldn’t do a damned thing about it. The people involved should be left alone to sort things out for themselves. People that need water can contract with people that supply water, and it doesn’t need to become a national issue. Some of you people are falling into the same trap humanity has fallen into since the beginning of time: sticking your nose into other people’s private affairs. There! I will now step down off my soapbox!

Dallas Weaver September 6, 2009 at 5:29 am

My letter to the WSJ:

Your editorial “California’s Man-Made Drought” (9/2/09) describes the devastating impacts on the California economy of using massive amounts of fresh water to “protect” the delta smelt (Hyopmesus transpacificius). Your editorial and most other writing on the subject makes an erroneous assumption that the “biological opinion” given by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is scientifically complete. Ecological systems are truly very complex, with many important variables, and it is not easy even to determine which variables are the most important.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s “biological opinion” in question makes interesting reading regarding what is NOT mentioned or considered. They have been surveying and monitoring the delta smelt since the mid 60′s, when DDT was creating major problems for fish-eating birds, such as terns and cormorants. In the 1960′s, I spent a great deal of time in the Delta, and during those years, herons, terns and cormorants were very rare. However, today power lines can be covered with cormorants drying their wings, and the air is often full of terns hunting for their dinners. A word search of the entire document for mentions of birds, terns, cormorants, etc. reveals that at no point has the Fish and Wildlife Services factored into their “biological opinion” the obvious impacts of bird predation on the delta smelt, despite the fact that the Fish and Wildlife Service has been monitoring the bird populations as well as the fish and should have the data (even if this data is being handled by a different department than the one offering it’s half-baked “biological opinion”). Even accessing some of the related documents and workshops, shows no consideration of bird predation and how it has changed over time since the deleterious effects of DDT have been eliminated. The amount of live fish birds like terns and cormorants can eat is truly amazing. They looked at fish predators, changes in food species and concentrations and many other major and minor factors, but not birds.

The population explosion among once-endangered birds, combined with decreased turbidity in the last 30 years, renders it unsurprising that delta smelt and a lot of other small bait fish are having problems. Whether the bulk of those problem are a consequence of pumping water from the delta or whether the problems arise from increased bird predation or other ecological changes is not known. However, what is known is that this has definitely not been properly considered in formulating the “biological opinion”. Deciding so arbitrarily that we should waste billions of gallons of water and suffer the resulting multi-billion dollar impacts on the state of California is a very costly mistake.

A correct scientific study and “biological opinion” would be forced to pose some hard questions about whether you can have large numbers of endangered species who eat each other in the same habitat. You cannot simultaneously maximize the number of cormorants and their food supply. You cannot protect seals, terns and salmon in the Columbia River without some very real tradeoffs that will harm one or more of the species. Admitting that this obvious tradeoff exists would pit activists for birds, marine mammals and fish against one another. Perhaps that is a subconscious motivation underlying the “biological opinion” of the ecologically-minded Fish and Wildlife Service.


PS: I am the president and owner of Scientific Hatcheries and have spent the last 30 years working in aquaculture and waste treatment. I have no dog in this fight beyond my hating to see such a valuable assets as fresh water, wasted by dumping it into the SF bay. A hatchery, costing no more than a million dollars, could produce vast quantities of delta smelt at an annual cost of < 0.1% of the economic impact of the water restrictions. Another solution would be to filter the water being extracted and return the smelt to the delta. This is already being attempted on a small scale.

Dallas E. Weaver, Ph.D.
Scientific Hatcheries
8152 Evelyn Cr.
Huntington Beach, CA 92646
Cell 714-614-3925

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