Californians have a complicated relationship with water. On one hand, the state  has had about a decade of drought. The land is baking in triple-digit heat waves and hundreds of wildfires scorch crops and forests alike in the interior, many believe due to neglectful forest management.  Unfortunately, due to this and other environmental management practices livelihoods are being threatened both up and down stream for both fisheries and local farmers. California's green credentials are being called into question by many justifiably worried that the livelihoods of farmers and fishers alike are being sacrificed on an altar of political policy and expediency.

Often the blame for California’s water crisis has been put on farmers. It has been touted that 80 percent of California’s water supply is being sucked up by farmers. This is incredibly unfair to single out the CA farmer considering the issue is complex and that they are simply playing by the rules that California’s policymakers have set for them. In actuality, CA wastes much more water on “environmental conservation” than farmers use on irrigation. That 80% figure is deceptive because it omits the environmental uses of water, which accounts for over 50% of the state’s flows. 

 From 2008-2015, 1.4 trillion gallons of water were flushed into the San Francisco Bay to protect the Delta smelt from water pumps. That’s enough water to sustain over 6 million people for six years. In April of 2015, California’s bizarre water ideas led state officials to force the Oakdale Irrigation District, near Modesto, to release “pulse flows” of water from a small reservoir so that 12 fish could swim out from the reservoir, down the Stanislaus River, and into the Pacific Ocean. Year after year, these practices continue, wasting trillions of gallons of water, even in drought times.  This is hardly conservation.

CA has also held back other ways to make more water readily available. Because of environmental concerns, plans were held up for the development of a water desalination plant in Orange County.  The powerful California Coastal Commission that controls all development along the shoreline is worried about the effect the desalination plant would have on plankton.  Because of these types of decisions, many people feel it is fish and plankton over people.

These constantly conflicting narratives highlight the challenges facing California as it attempts to balance environmentalism, conservation, and livelihoods. Even the best-intentioned environmental efforts seem to lack common sense, and in the end have the opposite effect on conservation. The conflict also demonstrates how public policy is upstream of many livelihood issues affecting at-risk communities.

The Smelt controversy is on-going to this day. The Smelt are endemic to California's coast, but their numbers have declined 90 percent since 1970 due in large part to water scarcity shifting from north to south through reliance on northern California reservoirs for irrigation storage. Now the question is whether water should be pumped southward into the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta.

As it turns out, the Delta is home to California's largest freshwater estuary and one of its most important fishery habitats. If the smelt disappear, thousands of livelihoods downstream could be in jeopardy including commercial salmon fishing operations that depend on healthy levees to maintain water quality for propagation. On the other hand, Sacramento valley farmers are already grappling with massive cuts to agricultural water allocations while simultaneously being subject to strict regulations governing groundwater pumping. The result has been economic devastation across mid-California.

 The problem arises when science meets politics. A court ruled in 2009 that protecting species was more important than maintaining livelihoods, but environmental concerns have not wavered over the past 12 years despite absolutely no signs of improvement in smelt numbers. Nothing illustrates the conflict better than an ongoing saga in which some people question whether it is even ethical to continue holding up livelihoods when they know smelt numbers will never rebound.

As a result, more than 15 lawsuits have been filed by environmental groups such as the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations (PCFFA) seeking to protect federally-listed species at any cost—even when livelihoods are placed on hold while populations rebound naturally. Former Governor Brown also made a public display about "taking a bigger role" in protecting fisheries all while funding multi-billion-dollar water diversion projects under the guise of helping endangered salmon populations return from extinction.  Current administrations continue these policies.

Whether or not you support these efforts, one thing is abundantly clear; livelihoods are at risk. Politicians can make all the public displays of environmental conservation they want but the livelihoods of those affected will always be collateral damage in this battle between environmentalism, politics and public policy.

The livelihood dilemma serves as a critical reminder that environmentalism and livelihood go hand in hand because everything, we do impacts the ability for people to thrive on this planet.  Everyone agrees that water is a precious resource worth protecting for this generation and future generations alike, which means that supporting livelihoods through intelligent management strategies must also be a part of the discussion.

It is not always easy to strike a balance between livelihoods and environmental sustainability, but livelihoods should never be carelessly sacrificed because of political showmanship having nothing to do with results, science, or true conservation.  In California, livelihoods are already under attack from a government that values politics over human rights—but it's up to people to raise their voice against the sort of legislation that destroys lives needlessly without creating any positive effect on the environment at all. 

The end result of the environmentalism in San Joaquin Valley to preserve the smelt fish and promote salmon population is the destruction of the state’s farmers. If you drive through Northern California on the 5 Freeway you will see desolated farms due to water being diverted. A million acres of land lay fallow, a loss of billions of dollars, resulting in massive economic and job losses for the local farming community and entire state. It’s questionable why some farmers are allowed to have water and others have been totally cut off. Many farmers have lost their farms that their families have farmed for generations. Here is this conflict in a nutshell.  Recent years has shown actual disdain for farmers, ranchers, and other food providers.  Many articles portray the farmer, who provides us with food, as the evil guy sucking up our water.  Others understand the complex and difficult situation of farmers trying to survive in a hostile natural and political environment.

Often activists claim we don’t need farmers, since they buy their food from the grocery store (imported from foreign countries).  This non-sensical statement as well as other endeavors to legislate what we eat, brings up many ethical questions.  Vegan and environmental activists want to ban the eating of meat and destroy the meat and dairy industry.  They claim this is necessary to limit methane emissions.  High taxes have been proposed on all heads of cattle and swine to try to drive ranchers and dairy farmers out of business.   The impact on our food supply chain seems to be receiving little thought, as only the vegan perspective is taken into consideration.  Others, like billionaire Bill Gates, want to produce fake meats in a lab printed with a 3-D printer, and have spent the last few years buying up farmland and working on ways to control weather and trying to block out the sun to decrease the Earth’s temperature.   It is hard to understand how anyone with any knowledge in this day and age could believe that fake food produced in a lab would be healthier than real food.  It is also a questionable endeavor for a human to spend billions to attempt to block out the sun without any consideration for the consequences to our planet, our food source, and the local residents.

September 27, 2023 — Debby McKnight