March 20, 2014

Our View: Valley congressmen heard what they wanted at ‘field hearing’

Echo chambers are great if you like the sound of what you’re saying. But they’re not much use if your goal is to find solutions everyone can agree to.

Echo chambers are great if you like the sound of what you’re saying. But they’re not much use if your goal is to find solutions everyone can agree to.

Most congressional field hearings, like the one in Fresno on Wednesday, are essentially echo chambers. Those invited to speak generally hold the same views as those who invited them. In this case, that’s Republican representatives Jeff Denham of Turlock and David Valadao of Hanford.

The representatives empathized as south Valley farmers described almond trees drying up; they nodded as environmentalists were excoriated, and restrictions on pumping from the delta were decried.

There is no doubt that farm families south of the Delta are hurting, financially and emotionally. It’s a pain farmers throughout the state also feel during one of the worst droughts on record. But there was no attempt during the hearing to balance that despair against other realities. For instance, if Delta pumps go wide open, what will keep saltwater from rushing up the rivers from the Bay? Salt water would not only doom fresh-water fish species, it could ruin the crops of farmers in Ripon and Manteca and foul the water of people living in Contra Costa and San Joaquin counties who depend on the Delta for drinking water. It might also provoke state officials to demand more releases from upstream dams (Don Pedro, Exchequer, New Melones) to flush the salt from the Delta.

No one wants to see farming investments lost, but growers who depend on federal and state water allocations know that there will be years when there’s not enough water to keep trees alive. That’s why in the past they mostly planted annual crops, which are less lucrative than almonds but won’t be destroyed during droughts.

Denham and Valadao heard the usual demands for more water storage, a demand we can only hope politicians will someday heed. If, as scientists assure us, droughts are going to be more frequent and more severe, there is no other solution. And that storage has to be at a high enough elevation so that gravity can push the water downstream to help farmers and then help anadromous fish find their way out to sea.

Steve Knell, whose Oakdale Irrigation District has been criticized for extensive groundwater pumping, was one of the few who offered an idea that could help in the near term – allowing the federal New Melones Reservoir to get closer to its maximum capacity of 2.4 million acre-feet during wet years so that more water can be held for dry years. Such solutions could help farmers and fish throughout the system … someday.

It’s fine to give voice to those who believe water is being withheld to cleanse the Bay or being used “as a weapon” against them, but it won’t help solve a problem all of us face.

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