Author: Nicola Overstreet
The San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary is the largest estuary on the west coast of the Americas. It’s also one of the largest points of contention in California’s ongoing struggle to allocate its supply of water. Often, the debate over how much water should be siphoned off from the Bay-Delta and where that water should go is framed as a battle of “fish vs. farmers.”
Farmers in the San Joaquin Valley – whose livelihoods depend on water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers of the Bay-Delta– lament that the amount of water they can use is restricted, seemingly because of environmental regulations protecting Delta fish. When House speaker John Boehner visited Bakersfield in January this year, he remarked, “How you can favor a fish over people is something the people in my part of the world would not understand.” Farmers like Jose Ruiz have been quoted echoing the sentiment, saying that people who have qualms about taking water from the Delta are “worrying about the fish but not about the humans' life.” Those who tout the fish vs. farmers conflict as the root of California water issues appear to believe that the only thing preventing farmland from flourishing through the entirety of the Central Valley is a collection of heartless environmentalists.
Some people have taken issue with the supposed clash between fish vs. farmers, because it ignores the many Californians who make a living off of fish both in the Delta and along California’s thousand mile coastline. George Skelton, a political columnist, writes that “it's not about farmers vs. fish. It's about farmers vs. fishermen. Or almonds vs. salmon.” However, reality is still not quite so simple.
As it turns out, the group most overlooked by the fish vs. farmers dichotomy actually consists of more farmers. Farmers based along the Sacramento and within the Delta oppose the diversion of fresh water from the Delta because they too need it to maintain their way of life. In a healthy estuary, salt water flowing in from the ocean mixes with fresh water flowing in the opposite direction, stopping the salt water from advancing. However, as that fresh water is diverted away from the Delta, salt water can move further upstream from the Bay and into the Delta uninhibited.
Residents of cities like Antioch worry about salt water creeping in from the Bay; their drinking water comes primarily from the Delta. Saltwater intrusion into the Delta affects the estuary ecosystem, drinking water quality, water recreation, and more. And it also scares people like Lynn Miller, whose family has farmed alongside the San Joaquin River for 113 years. As salt water enters the Delta, it will destroy their riverside farm.
So maybe the dichotomy isn’t fish vs. farmers, but farmers vs. farmers. Or perhaps it’s closer to Delta farmers and residents and fisherman and boaters and environmentalists and some Bay Area residents vs. Central Valley farmers and residents and other Bay Area and Southern Californian residents. There are thousands of interest groups clamoring to get a hold of the Delta’s fresh water and “fish vs. farmers” oversimplifies and misrepresents the already confusing political discourse surrounding California water.
During times of crisis, people have a tendency to react with knee-jerk policy recommendations. One argument frequently made is that loosening environmental regulations will help to immediately alleviate the drought’s effects, which seems like sound reasoning when viewed through the lens of fish vs. farmers. If you sacrifice the fish, you may help the farmers. But in reality, environmental regulations don’t only protect the environment. They protect the communities that rely on the integrity of that environment. When environmental regulations on the San Francisco Estuary are relaxed or ignored, the fish do suffer, but so do recreational and commercial fisherman all along the coast and all of the communities of the Bay and Delta. By focusing on the interests of Delta fish and ignoring how connected those interests are to the needs of Bay-Delta residents, “fish vs. farmers” trivializes the importance of the well-being of the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary. The false dichotomy of fish vs. farmers should have no place in serious California water policy conversations.