Valley Voices

Suzanne Redfern-West: On water, let’s stop pointing fingers and start solving problems

Despite the bountiful rain and snowpack delivered by this year’s El Niño, pumping of irrigation water south of the Delta has been restricted because of concerns about the fate of the Delta smelt.
Despite the bountiful rain and snowpack delivered by this year’s El Niño, pumping of irrigation water south of the Delta has been restricted because of concerns about the fate of the Delta smelt. rbenton@sacbee.com

I am responding to “California’s farmers try political force to open taps in drought,” a New York Times story that appeared in The Bee on Jan. 17.

A a farmer in the region spotlighted, I was disheartened to find another rehashing of old water grudges masquerading as news. My family has farmed in the area since 1927. We grow almonds, tomatoes, prunes and dairy-grade alfalfa hay in five different water districts, one of which is Westlands, the focus of the article.

The Central Valley Project created grudges from the beginning. It was built by the federal government in the 1930s to bring our semi-arid region to life, but detractors who would have done something else with that water protested against both the project and its users. The language on both sides was fiery, accusations became personal and deep resentments were born.

Today California is in a water crisis. Seemingly insurmountable problems include an aging and overtaxed storage/delivery system, tangled layers of water law, overlapping jurisdictions of state and federal agencies, and a diverse constituency of stakeholders each vying for a share of the annual pot.

Drought exacerbates the stalemate, but does not create it. Any hopes for finding solutions to these challenges will rely on bringing the best creative minds together in a fact-based, realistic, problem-solving setting. Finger pointing and misrepresentations of fact have no place in the debate.

In making up their own minds on the issues, decision-makers and the reading public deserve accurate data. The reporters make several misleading claims:

▪ 1. California agriculture consumes about 80% of the state’s water. Fact: Farms use some 45%, environmental projects another 45%, and the urban sector 10% of the state’s developed water.

▪ 2. We are wasteful water users. Fact: 90% of Westlands’ crops are grown with drip or micro-sprinkler technology.

▪ 3. Our water is cheap and plentiful. Fact: In the last four years water, when we can find it, has risen from an average of $150 an acre-foot to $500 to $600 an acre-foot. A recent Westlands purchase cost $1,500 per acre-foot. As for plentiful, for the last two years our water allocation from the Central Valley Project was zero.

Such misinformation and the pettiness that underlies it are frustrating because they drag us all back into old ways of thinking that muddy the waters and delay forward movement.

Do people really care whether farmers in a California water district contribute to political campaigns like anyone else or hire lobbyists to represent them? I’d guess not.

They will, however, be interested in the fact that California grows one-third of the nation’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts, much of it in the beautiful region I know firsthand.

And faced with living in a nation under threat, they will put near the top of any list of national security concerns the protection of a safe, dependable, and affordable food supply.

Suzanne Redfern-West of Redfern Ranches resides in Dos Palos.

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