Snow, rain and regulatory drought

Jun. 01, 2011

By John Harris
For Sacramento Bee

As a farmer and rancher gravely concerned with the health of agriculture in California -- and as a citizen who wants a strong recovery for our state's recession-burdened economy -- I've enjoyed reading the precipitation surveys out of the Sierra this year.

Snow depths were more than twice the long-term average at some measuring stations, and reservoirs are brimming.

As a result, there has been a pronounced short-term change in outlook for farmers and communities that were seared by a three-year drought. More acres are being planted, more workers are being hired, more farm machinery is being purchased, and a world-class food supply is being produced.

As the Wall Street Journal reported recently, "California's farm economy is on the rebound."

Just one acre of vegetable production in my area can generate more than $5,000 in incremental jobs. My on-farm payroll has gone up $4 million over the past year. Local businesses, such as car dealers, have seen their sales soar. This shows that if the farm economy has money, it will be spent and help grow the economy.

However, while we are all thrilled by the dramatic turnaround in water supply, there are justified fears about future years. Although the natural drought has ended, we're still faced with harmful regulatory barriers to getting the needed water to those who grow the food and provide the stimulus our economy needs.

Most of the regulatory restrictions are part of a misguided federal scheme to help fish on the Endangered Species Act list. The cutbacks in pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta were based on federal "biological opinions" that too often involved junk science, as Fresno-based U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger found.

Not surprisingly, the strategy didn't significantly help the species. But it had one clear effect: putting people out of work and decimating local economies in the Valley.

The cycles of planting and harvesting require planning. Arbitrary, unpredictable government water policies make planning a guessing game -- or downright impossible. Even with more water in the system, uncertainties continue to plague water users.

Farmers have been frustrated as we've tried to sort through the vague forecasts about water deliveries. Even in March, when it was clear that reservoirs were almost certain to be full, federal water users were told to expect only a 60% water supply. By May, we were told that supplies are fine -- but we needed certainty of that much earlier in the year.

We are delighted to get what we have, but it's still not 100%. Why the shortfall? A May 2 press release from the California Department of Water Resources was candid: It said that a 100% allocation is "difficult to achieve even in wet years due to pumping restrictions" for ESA-protected fish.

And if the natural drought returns, or court decisions go the wrong way, the crisis could mirror what we've just gone through. Over the past couple of years, in farmland served by the Westlands Water District, an estimated 200,000 acres were pulled out of production because of reduced irrigation. Thousands of jobs were lost, and despair among farmers, farmworkers and local businesses was evident.

The environment took a toll as well. Dust from dry fields filled the air and the over-drafting of groundwater caused land to subside. "How could this not affect the human environment?" asked Judge Wanger. "It has had catastrophic effects."

If we want to climb out of the recession and build a prosperous future, we need a balanced, people-friendly approach to environmental regulations -- starting with how the ESA is implemented in California. We are all grateful for abundant snow and rain. But there's still a drought of common sense in the way the federal government administers its environmental laws. Unless that changes, it will be hard to harvest a sustained recovery.

John Harris is chairman and CEO of Harris Farms, Inc., in Coalinga, and chairs the Board of Trustees of Pacific Legal Foundation (

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