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Why Just About Everything You Hear About California's Water Crisis Is Wrong, Wrong, Wrong

The media and the governor are warning of the "worst drought in history" in California We're being lied to.

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But you get to meet one of the boys from Westlands doing his struggling farmer routine on 60 Minutes, giving viewers a walkthrough of his family-farm-in-crisis, explaining how the drought forced him to fallow some of his fields while, in the background, massive shredding trucks turned $18-million worth his almond trees into a neat pile of wood chips. The 60 Minutes segment, like most other farmer profiles, left out the stuff that would squelch any sympathy for their cause. Like the fact that the Woolf family clan operates the "biggest farming operation in Fresno County" that receives $4.2 million in taxpayer-subsidized water every year, enough to supply a city of 150,000 people. In the past decade, the dozen or so companies partially owned by Stuart Woolf have taken in roughly $8 million in federal crop subsidies. But Stuart Woolf still feels like he isn't getting enough. In 2008, he threatened a congressional subcommittee that he'd move his family's farm holdings to Portugal, Spain, Turkey and even China if the feds didn't give him more taxpayer-subsidized water.

Myth: Water shortages threaten to wipe out California's agricultural industry, causing a chain reaction that will cripple the state's economy and raise food prices around the country, maybe even the world.

It's true, a total meltdown of California's agricultural industry, the largest in the United States, would be bad news for everyone involved. But the problem with this apocalyptic domino effect, which pops up as a talking point on Schwarzneger's press releases and is parroted by the likes of Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal , is a pesky thing called reality. Most irrigation districts have been getting their water on schedule. And because the drought has only affected atiny sliver -- about two percent -- of California's total farmland, most of which happens to be some of the most heavily-subsidized growing operations in the state, any "multiplier effect" is bound to be limited, if noticeable at all.

Take Westlands Water District, where a sizable chunk of the state's fallowed farmland is concentrated. The district produces about $1 billion in gross income a year, $750 million of which is funded by water subsidies. Add to that hundreds of millions more in direct crop subsidies, and pretty soon the government ends up funding most, if not all of Westlands' economic output. Even if Westlands farmers weren't such welfare queens, it would be hard to get worked even if the entire old billionaire club went under. After all, their entire output amounts to one-half of one percent of California's $1.8 trillion. And we're not talking about missing out on vital crops here: who'd even notice an uptick in almond prices?

Myth: Big city environmentalists are making the drought more serious than it actually is.

In 2007, a federal judge limited the amount of water that could be pumped out of Northern California because it endangering a small, but important fish called the Delta smelt, which is now protected by the California Endangered Species Act. Ever since, California's wealthy Central Valley farmers -- including Westlands -- have staged a public relations war, blaming big city elitists for caring more about the environment than they do about American farmers. "Thanks to environmental regulations designed to protect the likes of the three-inch long delta smelt, one of America's premier agricultural regions is suffering in a drought made worse by federal regulations," pronounced a Wall Street Journal editorial in September 2009.

Fox News took the attack to a whole new level, with Sean Hannity proclaiming that President and his Royal Democratic-Socialist Guard were single-handedly killing off hardworking American farmers and demanded that the Obama "turn this water on now." The funny thing is that Obama had already done that, when the court-ordred pumping restrictions were lifted three months earlier.

The reason these farmers weren't getting their water had nothing to do with the fish, and all to do with their "junior" water rights and a bailout business mentality. In the past decade, farmers had lobbied for and received 30% more water than they did in the 1990s, knowingly taking a gamble by planting permanent, high-cost crops in an area first to suffer water cutbacks during dry times. But they did it anyway, fully expecting to get the government to keep delivering the water even in a time of drought, which it has. According to the Environmental Defense Fund , even the most junior water rights holders were receiving almost all of their water all throughout 2009.

Where has all that water gone? Well, some of the farmers have been selling it on the open market, frequently flipping their heavily taxpayer-subsidized water back to the government for twice the price. One millionaire farmer-cum-real-estate-developer made roughly $60 million selling his welfare water to a McTractHome paradise in the Mojave Desert, selling water was easier and more lucrative than farming.

Bonus myth: the drought has sparked a grassroots movement of farm owners and farm workers, uniting to pressure the government for more water.

Nothing exposes Arnold Schwarzenegger and his billionaire farmers backers for the sadistic slime balls that they are than the Latino Water Coalition, an astroturf group created by farming interests, paid for by taxpayer money and blessed by the governor himself. The group was designed to give a populist face to a purely corporate cause, paying poor Latino migrant workers to take part in protests staged for the benefit of Fox News' camera, even sent to go on a 5-day "March for Water" to draw attention to California farmers' plight and generally exploiting the exploited so that you can help you exploit them even more. But the worst part about it is that well-meaning journalists fell for it.

 
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