Community Columns

Why have we forsaken Kennedy’s vision for feeding the world?

Fishermen drive to the low point at the San Luis Reservoir in 2013. According to the California Department of Water Resources, the reservoir is only 10 percent full in summer 2016 at 200,028 acre-feet.
Fishermen drive to the low point at the San Luis Reservoir in 2013. According to the California Department of Water Resources, the reservoir is only 10 percent full in summer 2016 at 200,028 acre-feet. Modesto Bee file

San Luis Reservoir is 9 miles long and, when it’s full, can hold 660 billion gallons of water – or roughly enough to cover every inch of Stanislaus County 2  1/2 feet deep.

The problem is, San Luis Reservoir isn’t full. Not even close.

When ground was broken on Aug. 18, 1962, for the B.F. Sisk Dam that would create the reservoir, President John F. Kennedy came to make a speech. Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, Jerry’s father and the father of the California State Water Project, was there, too.

President Kennedy, speaking confidently as he so often did, talked about a conservation project that “looks to the future and not to the past.” He told those listening under a hot August sun that it would help the nation “continue to move forward.”

It was a “joint use” facility, meaning it stored water for both the California State Water Project and federal Central Valley Project. Kennedy noted that such an arrangement was the “first of its kind” – which is why Gov. Brown was there to represent the state in this partnership. It was “water leadership” because large portions of this big valley with its “brown, dusty and useless” land could become the “greenest and richest” on Earth, helping to feed the nation and world, in Kennedy’s words.

California’s farmers made that happen. The reservoir provided water for irrigation districts up and down the San Joaquin Valley, from Stanislaus to Kern counties, and the Valley has been feeding the world for generations.

That mission is in danger. According to the California Department of Water Resources, San Luis Reservoir is only 10 percent full at 200,028 acre-feet. According to, water deliveries are likely to be curtailed.

The reservoir hasn’t been filled because of environmental regulations, despite California’s latest rainy season that was “roughly 16 percent higher than the long-term average and over 200 percent higher than the driest 1976-1977 season.”

Instead of storing all that water, California has squandered the opportunity to fill San Luis Reservoir during this “solid rainy season,” says Zerohedge. Worse, almost 50 percent of our fresh water supply every year gets dumped into the Pacific Ocean – even during severe droughts such as the one we’ve suffered through the past four years.

A growers group confirms that more than 1 million acre-feet was flushed out to sea this year, with 550,000 more being proposed by federal and state agencies for environmental purposes.

It’s been obvious to me that agriculture and other industries are purposely being shut down and chased out of the country.

How can we fight this when the system is obviously rigged and corrupt to its core? It doesn’t matter which political party or policy wonks are at the top, California’s agriculture and associated industries are losing their ability to function.

We have two presidential candidates, one who promises to fix California’s disintegrating water system and the other who wants the bureaucratic/regulatory status quo of the past four administrations.

Though Gov. Jerry Brown has no emails to hide, his unbeguiled vision seems to deviate far from that of his father – the one that President Kennedy helped celebrate 54 years ago.

California’s agriculture and its water system are headed for disaster. Using San Luis Reservoir as it was originally envisioned is integral to keeping that from happening. California should return to what we know works.

But I’m not sure this can be straightened out when we, as a nation, forget the words of leaders such as President Kennedy, whose vision was firmly fixed on the future – a future with adequate water for farming.

John Michelena is a West Side grower and community columnist. Send comments or questions to