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Are Policy Makers Exacerbating Drought Scares? That's What It Looks Like in California

Like much of the West, the state has serious water issues, but Mother Nature is only partly to blame.

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While many environmentalists and delta farmers and fishermen, angered by diversions of water out of the delta, have come down hard on Westlands agriculture, there is still sympathy for the people who live there, and many of the hardest hit are of course the poorest -- in this area, that often means the migrant farmworkers and immigrant communities.

Not all agriculture is the same, explains McIntyre. "You have small family farms, you have sustainable systems, and then you have large corporate agriculture that survives off of subsidies and cheap water and what amounts to a subsidy in that we ignore the pollution they put into aquifers and waterways which cost all Californians quite a bit of money."

And Westlands has often been put in that last category.

"The Westland Water District membership is made up mostly of absentee-owner corporate farms," contends Pietro Parravano, Zeke Grader and Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations -- a group often at odds with farmers over water. "But they do wield a mighty checkbook, and if they don't have public sentiment going for them, they do have political friends in Washington," like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, they wrote.

"The Westlands problem is compounded by the fact that irrigating the lands where it is located results in a toxic wastewater mix. The irrigation water leeches selenium from these soils and, combined with the pesticides and fertilizers used by the growers, results in toxic runoff," they contended.

The environmental impacts from farming in the area threaten not just the ecological health of the area, but could also threaten human health McIntyre warns.

"The question is, are we going to continue to use precious water to irrigate degraded lands that shouldn't have experienced a plow in the first place and, through irrigation, release toxic waste into the environment?" asks Jennings.

His answer to this question is no. Jennings believes the water pressures in California will come down to choosing between agriculture in the delta or agriculture around Westlands, and he's for the delta, which he calls, "a half a million acres of some of the most productive farmland in the country."

"They built their lives around it and mortgaged their futures based on paper water," said Jennings. "I have sympathy for them, like I have sympathy for victims of mortgage crisis. But how do we get out of this? California's water has been managed like a giant Ponzi scheme. It puts Bernie Madoff to shame. How long can we continue to ignore the disparity between promises and real water?"

The Makings of a Water Grab?

It's likely the delta's water issues can't continue to limp on much longer, but many fear that the governor's proposed solution, which he got a chance to plug at the recent farmer rallies, may be even worse.

He also gave a tour to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who seemed concerned enough to steer federal money to the state, but hasn't yet been swayed to the governor's plan.

CNBC reported:

Schwarzenegger, for his part, reiterated his call to build more dams and urged state lawmakers to place a water bond on next year's ballot. He also favors building a canal to pipe river water around the delta, an idea rejected by voters in 1982.

Salazar declined to endorse building new dams or a canal. He did rule out suspending federal environmental laws, as some members of California's Republican congressional delegation have suggested in an attempt to funnel more water to farmers."

The governor's canal plans trigger concern for many in Northern California, and his drought-emergency proclamation is only contributing to the fear. Jennings flat out states, "The drought is being used as a straw man to divert attention and to justify the replumbing of the delta for the vast peripheral canal."