You Don't Miss The Water…

Sean Hannity, that crusading champion of the poor but honest workingman, was at it again last night, using an hour of prime time on the Fair and Balanced network to slam the pointy-headed bureaucrats and malicious tree-huggers for turning off the water to California’s Central Valley for the sake of “a few fish” and thus throwing thousands of tomato pickers onto the tender mercies of the Food Bank.

Yes, it’s true that the Valley is in danger of turning into a desert, not that it was ever far removed from one until the California Aqueduct, one of the 20th century’s greater feats of engineering, brought billions of gallons of fresh water cascading down from the North and turned an arid valley into America’s Salad Bowl. At one point – and it may still be true – 50% of the country’s fresh produce came from a few counties in Central and Southern California.

The story Hannity is peddling is a good one, a touching one, and one that people can and should get angry about, except that it, like most of what Hannity peddles, is a noxious admixture of exaggeration, distortion, and plain old fashioned lies. There is a conflict over how much water should be allowed to flow to the sea in Northern California for the sake of enabling the fish population to survive and how much should be diverted to the Southland for agricultural irrigation and to fill the swimming pools of Greater Los Angeles.

Water, as anyone familiar with California history will know, has been a contentious issue for nearly as long as the state has been in existence. There’s no surer way to get a Northern and Southern Californian snarling at each other than to mention some of the machinations that enabled the Southland to get its thirsty tentacles into the North’s once-plentiful water supply, and if I betray some bias there, it’s understandable; I lived in the North for some 30 years. However, I’m not rigidly ideological about it; I accept that both Los Angeles and Central Valley agriculture are not only established facts, but also that they are fundamental components of the nation’s socio-economic structure. The fantasies of some Northern Unabomber types notwithstanding, we can’t, nor should we, pull the plug on Southern California’s water supply.

But by the same token, even if all the fish were to be left gasping their last in the sort of arid streambed that the Los Angeles “River” has become, it’s not simply a matter of opening the taps and delivering all the water needed or wanted by the Southland. It’s not simple at all, in fact, which is why Hannity’s simplistic demagoguery is so offensive – and so dishonest.

People have been warning that California’s water supplies are not limitless – a point which should be obvious to anyone who’s lived through one of the state’s not infrequent droughts – for decades already. I myself was writing about the coming water crisis in Lookout magazine almost 25 years ago, and I was far from being the first to raise the alarm. When the California State Water Project got underway, the state’s population was only slightly more than 10 million and it was probably hard to imagine that the torrents of water cascading through the northern mountains – and often flooding whole towns when too much rain came at once – could ever be insufficient to California’s needs.

But now there are 38 million Californians, and the majority of them live in areas of the state that would, if it were not for the importation of water from the North, be straight-up desert. You’d think this would make them conservation-minded, but it’s turned out quite the opposite: largely oblivious to where their water comes from or how it’s delivered from hundreds of miles away, they tend to take a rather cavalier attitude toward water use, namely, as long as it keeps coming out of the tap, we’ll use it.

In addition to the North-South component of the water wars, there’s also an urban-rural divide. The farmers feel the city folk are hogging it all for their landscaped gardens, their swimming pools, and now, for those damned fish. The metropolitan types, if they think about it at all, suspect the farmers of wasting vast quantities of the precious resource by emptying it out on the parched and baking Valley.

There’s some truth to both views, and room for a great deal more conservation in both camps, but Sean Hannity’s fulminations notwithstanding, there isn’t enough water – not nearly enough – to sustain present levels of consumption, let alone those that will be demanded by future development. This doesn’t mean that agriculture has to come to a halt, or that Los Angelenos need to start showering with a friend, but it does mean that both urban and rural users will have to start using water more sanely and reasonably if California is to avoid becoming a 21st century dust bowl.

Is there enough water to continue producing fruits and vegetables in the Central Valley? Absolutely. But only if big agriculture stops treating water as a limitless resource and squandering it on crops that are completely unsuitable for California’s climate. I’m talking mainly about cotton and rice: both require the sort of water supplies you would find in a tropical or semi-tropical region. Yes, you can grow them, and grow them very well in California, as long as the water keeps flowing. By the same token, you could build and maintain an igloo village in Death Valley, provided you’re willing to pay astronomical sums for the electricity needed to run a giant freezer compartment in the hottest place on earth.

Cotton also requires massive use of pesticides, which combined with the buildup of selenium and other salts as a result of irrigation, are gradually turning once-fertile Valley soils into a toxic soup. On so many levels, growing cotton in the Central Valley is insane, and yet it’s also very profitable. Not, however, because it’s meeting the demands of the market, but because the federal government – i.e., our tax dollars – subsidize it. If there were a free market in cotton, there would be little or no cotton grown in California, and it would instead be produced in more suitable climates, Africa being a prime example. However, because big agribusiness and its lobbyists have steamrollered Congress into granting these subsidies, African farmers are being forced out of business and California’s – and America’s – prime agricultural region is being slowly but surely turned into wasteland.

So there you have the real story: Sean Hannity was not there in “The Valley That Hope Forgot” because of his deep, abiding concern for the hard-pressed tomato pickers of the world; quite the contrary, with his “Drill baby drill” approach to water consumption, he’s (as always) shilling for big business and for policies that, if followed to their logical conclusion, will ultimately dispossess those tomato pickers of their land and their livelihood.

Water is like oil in some respects: the world is in danger of running out of both. And just as with oil, the Hannitys and Palins of the world are responding to the looming shortage by urging us to use more of the stuff. But while science will eventually find new sources of energy to replace oil, it’s a bit harder to come up with a substitute for water. We can – and ultimately will – learn to live without oil, but insufficient supplies of fresh water have spelled death for past civilizations and will no doubt do the same for ours if we don’t change our wasteful ways. “They have made a desert and called it peace,” Tacitus famously said; Hannity’s Corollary could -should – read, “They have made a desert and called it highly profitable.”

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