California farmers must hang together in the water wars

columns@modbee.comMay 4, 2013 

DN John Michelena

Modesto Bee visiting editor John Michelena Jr., of Patterson, Wednesday, January 7, 2009. (Debbie Noda/The Modesto Bee)

DEBBIE NODA — Modesto Bee

"We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately," said Benjamin Franklin at the signing of the Declaration of Independence. His words of wisdom are also applicable to farmers in modern-day California.

Farmers have been mostly divided in this state when it comes to water. Many farmers are focused on survival — securing water for their own farming needs. It's almost as if they take delight when other farmers can no longer grow their crops. Perhaps they believe that the loss of irrigation for others will benefit them, by thinning production and increasing commodity prices.

This dog-eat-dog attitude is often expressed: Farmers should never have planted permanent crops south of the delta without having water they could count on. Some others, with even bigger craniums, say that water should only be used for high-value crops like trees and vines (i.e. permanent crops), not for growing alfalfa or other field crops. I suppose they miss the inconsistencies, and that flushing freshwater out to sea for the welfare of fish is not wasting precious water, either.

Guess what? California has a bad business climate for farming or any other productive enterprise which plans on being around for more than a year. This state punishes those who work hard. It's also eco-centric, as humans rate below primitive organisms barely worth their six glasses of water a day.

It was the west side farmers that first had their water greatly reduced to protect the delta smelt and Chinook salmon. The government-run bureaucracies using witchcraft instead of science were never satisfied with fish screens, restrictions on water pumping, environmental water fees, etc.

Then this willy-nilly environmentalism spread east.

Friant water users have water cuts to restore the flow of the San Joaquin River that has had dry river beds for some 60 years. The state Water Resources Board wants 35 percent of the Tuolumne River flows diverted for fish, which hurts farms in the Turlock, Modesto and Merced irrigation districts. Stockton-area farmers have been fighting the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to receive promised water from New Melones Lake as they had built an expensive network of tunnels and canals, with taxpayer funding, too.

Even the delta tunnels plan, like irrigation improvements on any farm or to the whole statewide water system, may only be creating false hopes, never giving farmers reliable water no matter what they do.

Amid all this misery, it may help just a little if fellow farmers could support one another — even if just in spirit and as a matter of principle. Farmers might then build a stronger, more unified front against this avalanche of legislation and regulation that is taking away water from large swathes of agricultural land.

But it will take more than farmers sticking together to ensure they have water. Many more people than farmers must realize that agriculture and water are indispensable to our economy, and is good for the environment. It's just not wise to replace irrigated farmland with dry weeds and concrete.

Michelena is a Patterson-area farmer who served as a visiting editor at The Bee in 2009. Send questions or comments to

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