|“What really is killing the Delta is using that subsidized water to grow subsidized crops on impaired land that never should have been farmed in the first place.”
Second Thoughts: Bill Jennings thinks he’s unlocked the secret to saving the Delta, but can the water wars be put on hold in the name of battling a common enemy?
by Jon Mendelson / Tracy Press
Friday, 11 July 2008
For many, the slow death of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is a mystery.
Experts of all stripes, special commissions, even blue ribbon task forces have tried to tackle the Delta’s problems for decades. All, so far, have been unsuccessful.
For Bill Jennings, longtime activist and watcher of the waterways, the answers to fixing the Delta’s woes are simple: Take less water out, pour less bad stuff in, don’t introduce animals where they don’t belong.
What a concept.
The California Sportfishing Protection Alliance director, formerly of Deltakeeper fame, has dedicated years to carrying out his three-point solution to the three-point problem of excess water exports, high pollution and invasive species that plagues California’s most important river system.
Often, his mission has been fulfilled in the courtroom. Jennings and his organizations have filed hundreds of lawsuits to force those who rely on the Delta to treat it with more care.
His outfit’s most recent suit is against Stockton for a sewage system Jennings calls “the worst we’ve seen.”
Jennings has no tolerance for those who abuse the waterway Californians rely on to grow their food, fill their glasses, wash away waste, incubate wildlife and be a waterskiing wonderland on weekends.
That includes cities like Stockton, whose wastewater treatment system allegedly racked up 1,500 sewage spills in five years.
Ask Jennings who truly wears the black hats in the shootout over Delta water, though, and you’ll get a far-from-standard response. To hear him tell it, most folks in NorCal have it all wrong.
“The problem’s not the people in the LA basin,” he said last week. “It’s not even the issue for most of the farmers.”
According to Jennings, the main culprits for damaging the Delta — and those at fault for drying up the San Joaquin River somewhere north of Friant Dam — are the corporate farms tilling thousands of acres of alfalfa and cotton in the middle of what was once a grassland desert.
“What really is killing the Delta is using that subsidized water to grow subsidized crops on impaired land that never should have been farmed in the first place.”
He’s not going after the family farmer, or even the medium-sized corporate farmer, he stressed. Jennings targets the behemoths, the recipients of Farm Bill largesse planting water-intensive nonfood crops in a water-starved environment.
It’s worth saying here that the farmers drawing Jennings’ ire have become super water-efficient, relatively speaking, and have drastically reduced the amount of water they’ve used in recent decades. Compare that with the typical lawn-watering suburbanite, who probably hasn’t changed habits since the ‘60s.
But Jennings’ notion that there’s a structural problem in how we treat the Delta carries weight.
The Central Valley’s population is expected to grow; water supplies aren’t. It’s doubtful whether the Delta — already on the brink as a living waterway — can fulfill its role as estuary/drinking source/garbage man, if something drastic doesn’t change.
As Jennings put it, “California is going to have to make some choices.”
Though Jennings singles out mega-farmers, they’re not the only problem.
Everyone who relies on the Delta is a bad guy, responsible to some extent for its downward spiral. That makes everyone, corporate farmer to weekend warrior, responsible for keeping it healthy.
California’s water war for years has been an “us against them” affair — farmers versus fishers, rural versus urban, NorCal versus SoCal. Small wonder the Delta’s long-term problems remain largely unsolved.
Until the fight shifts from scattered bouts between users to a concerted effort against the Delta’s death, the status quo of a polluted, shrinking resource will remain.
Of all the choices Jennings says Delta dependents face, the biggest and most important might be to compromise.
Support UPSAC! Preserve pier and shore angling in California.