Farms Beat Fish in California Water Fight

California grows more than one-third of America’s vegetables and more than two-thirds of our fruits and nuts

This is the sixth year of the drought, which was declared a state of emergency in 2014. This severe and long-term water shortage has created fierce competition for access to California water, pitting the agricultural industry against other industries and businesses, residents, and environmental groups. Agriculture in the state has suffered from the drought, but, in most cases, the choice has been made to prioritize the water needs of farms and farmers above almost everything else.

On the federal level, Congress has weighed in on California’s water war with the recently passed Water Infrastructure and Improvement for the Nation Act (WIIN). This is a huge bill containing a wide range of provisions related to water around the country and the president will probably sign it any day now. For California, in general, and the state’s agriculture industry, in particular, the act is a big win with over $550 million in drought relief coming. But there are always losers in the war for California’s limited water and in this battle a fish, the Delta smelt, has taken a hit.

WIIN includes a rider that calls for 100% output by the pumping operations that take water out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta to irrigate farms in Southern California, except during the driest times when they are to be operated at 50%. Previously, the amount of water that could be pumped from the delta was determined by a number of factors, including how it would impact the Delta smelt, because it’s a threatened species. As more fresh water is taken out of the delta the salinity level increases and it may soon get to a point where the smelt cannot survive. Smelt numbers have already been in rapid decline for several years and this change to their ecosystem could very well mean extinction for the species. But the delta ecosystem isn’t just home to the smelt and this is likely to hurt other fish stocks, like salmon, as well. This provision is an unfortunate part of the bill, which actually contains other provisions that will provide important habitat restoration efforts and protections for fish and fisheries in other parts of the country.

This provision in WIIN is an early delivery on a campaign promise made by Trump in May of this year. While speaking in Fresno, the president-elect suggested that California wasn’t in a drought and that the water shortage was due to fresh water being “shoved out to sea” in order to “protect a certain three-inch fish”. He also told the audience that, if elected, he would “start opening up the water.” Trump’s claims were not very convincing to California voters, who are living through the very real drought, but, apparently, they appealed to his fellow Republicans in Congress, who created this rider in order to get water to farmers at the expense of the three-inch fish in question, the Delta smelt.

This bill is certainly not the beginning or the end of the conflict between fish and farmers over California’s water, but it could be the end of the Delta smelt. And contrary to what Trump seemed to be implying in his statement, the small size of the fish does not actually diminish the species’ right to exist or its importance as part of a larger ecosystem that a number of organisms, including some humans, depend on.

Alexis Chapman is a Political Consultant and Writer specializing in policy analysis, from international law to local ordinances. She’s lived in Australia, Ghana, Vermont, Hawaii, and Texas and has worked for small and large NGOs, state legislature, industry associations, and a variety of publications. She is a regular contributor to Political Storm and you can find her on Twitter @AlexisAPChapman.