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California's Water Woes Threaten the Entire Country's Food Supply

Nearly a third of the country's food supply comes from California, but drought there may be a catastrophe for farmers -- and the rest of us.
 
 
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What a difference an administration makes. Samuel Bodman, the previous secretary of energy under the Bush administration, spent his short term stumping for nuclear power plant construction, polluting the hell out of the Earth, profiting off global warming and trying to significantly downplay America's singular role in greenhouse-gas emissions.

The new one? Well, he's a doom prophet with a Ph.D.

"I don't think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen. We're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California. I don't actually see how they can keep their cities going," Steven Chu told the Los Angeles Times in February, shortly after taking office in January. "I'm hoping that the American people will wake up," he added, just in case there was any confusion about the gravity of the situation.

That kind of apocalyptic foresight has made Chu a breath of fresh, dystopian air. For eight nearly insufferable years, the American public has had no shortage of political tools telling it everything is going to be all right, that the United States is the greatest country in the world, that reports of our impending environmental devastation have been greatly exaggerated, and so on. By contrast, Steven Chu is a Cassandra on a mission from reality. But few, especially in the state he singled out, feel like buying what he is selling.

"Dr. Chu is not a climate scientist," argued Jim Metropulos, senior advocate at Sierra Club's California chapter, echoing the same conditional given in the Los Angeles Times article in which Chu was quoted. "Obviously, he's versed on it, but he's taking an apocalyptic view. I think it's not sustainable in its current form. We rely on imported water to grow high-value crops, but maybe the agriculture we have today may not be the agriculture we have decades from now."

That's a big maybe.

Here are some not-so-fun facts: California's agricultural sector grows approximately one-third of the nation's food supply and is nourished by diverted rivers and streams filled yearly by runoff from its prodigious Sierra Nevada snowpack, as well as groundwater pumping and other less-reliable methods. That snowpack -- which once sparked the first, but not the last, water war that helped transform a semi-arid Los Angeles into an unsustainable oasis less populous than only New York City -- is disappearing fast. Hence Chu's worrisome prediction.

To make matters worse, a crushing drought, now well into its third year, has made simply everything problematic. In California's central valley, home to a majority of the state's agricultural output, farmers are leaving hundreds of thousands of acres fallow, and the resultant economic depression is having a domino effect that could cost California $1 billion to start and is causing residents of a one-time food powerhouse to go hungry.

In April, a series of spring showers and storms upped the snowpack to 80 percent of normal. At the beginning of May, it stumbled to 66 percent, compared to 72 percent the year before. Complicating that are recent federal directives mandating reductions of water deliveries to California farmers and urban users by 5 to 7 percent in hopes of preserving the Pacific Coast's salmon fishery, which is hovering, like the state's snowpack, on the brink of extinction.

"This federal biological opinion puts fish above the needs of millions of Californians," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger self-righteously fumed after the federal directive came down in June. His sound and fury is unjustified, but instructive.

"Sooner or later California is going to change how it uses water," explained Environmental Defense Fund officials Cynthia Koehler and Laura Harnish in the Huffington Post. "We can do it before we lose our fish, or after."