Sean Hannity, one of the conservative commentators on Fox News I usually find repugnant, deserves credit for calling national attention to a tragic scenario that is playing out in California's fertile San Joaquin Valley. The nation's largest bread and fruit basket is experiencing a third year of drought made worse by severe cutbacks in imported water because of federal protection of an endangered species, a tiny minnow-sized fish critical in the ecological life-support system for orcas and several salmon families.
Of course, Hannity has a limited niche audience. At least he is trying to illuminate a severe problem effecting not only the lives of farmers and farm workers in central California but the cost of food for all Americans. It deserves a national debate but is drowned out by the national media's one-at-a-time focus on health care reform with the struggling economy and climate change legislation straggling behind in second and third place of attentive priorities.
But as his style, Hannity frames the issue as fish vs. people and the government is the villain. If only it were that simple the farmers would have received their allotment of water, the second (or eighth, depending whom you believe) highest unemployment rate among the state's 57 counties would drop and everyone would live happily ever after. Unfortunately, we don't live in Hannity's world.
The politics is relatively clear cut. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenneger has declared the valley counties a disaster area and hopes for $3 million to $4 million a month in extended unemployment benefits and other aid to the targeted cities and counties. The Obama administration has yet to sign off on the request.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar visited the stricken area and listened to the plight from county and city elected officials, state representatives, farmers and laborers. That was June 28. He promised nothing and no directives have been issued from his office on the subject since that time.
The delta smelt, the threatened minnow destined on the Endangered Species list, plug the drains releasing water to the farm lands. As a result, the Westlands Water District serving Mendota, a city in Fresno County, restricted the federal water allotment to farmlands to 10%. One result is planted fields going to rot and the other Mendota's unemployment rate reaching 41%.
But environmental groups involved in this battle hold the upper hand. Here is a sampling from one of the groups:
While falsely blaming modest regulatory protections for "fish populations to the north" for the Central Valley's problems, Representatives Jim Costa (D-Fresno) and Dennis Cardoza (D-Merced), neglected to mention the impacts that massive water exports out of the California Delta have had upon the thousands of people that have been employed in the commercial and recreational fishing industries and the coastal and Central Valley communities that depend upon healthy fisheries for their economic health. The closure of recreational and commercial salmon fishing season off California and Oregon this year and in 2008 has had a devastating impact upon coastal communities in both states.
"While they are bitching about fish protections robbing them of water (not true!), the Bureau of Reclamation is preparing now to ship 40,000 acre-feet of Central Valley Project water to Southern California – swimming pools and golf courses," noted Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman's Associations.
One analyst for an environmental group may have cherry-picked the data and came up with these numbers:
Fresno County had 15.4% unemployment in May with a 9-year average of 10.5%. The average unemployment for all 18 primarily agriculture dependent counties in May was 15.6% which placed Fresno eighth and Imperial County first at 26.8%.
"What this data clearly shows is that unemployment is chronic in Mendota (28.1% average), worsened by the drought, as with all other agriculture dependent counties," the analyst reported.
"The owners of the big farms there are certainly not sharing their profits well with the labor community that serves them. There is much to be done to improve their plight, and it should not include disaster relief from the taxpayers (as requested by the Governor and our Senators)."
I report. You decide.