For Fresno and California’s entire Central Valley, it should be the best of times.
With the dollar weak and the world hungry, the exceptionally fertile fields along the Golden State highway should be producing record yields of grains, fruits, vegetables and nuts.
Instead, farmers are struggling to keep even a third of their potential acreage in use. Mile after mile of parched land greets the approach to the city of 500,000. And angry signs along the roadside condemn the federal government that has cut off the valley’s water.
The delta smelt, a small fish that makes its home in the vast Sacramento Delta, has been declared endangered. Since late last year, the water lifeline from the north to the south has been reduced to a trickle.
The pumps that power the water to the farms have been stilled for months at a time to avoid sucking in smelt. The smelt’s numbers have been reduced by many causes, but the one the federal government has decided to target is the pumps.
When Washington, D.C., ordered the water shut off, jobs went down the drain. Tens of thousands of farm jobs have been lost, and unemployment in some farming towns has hit 40 percent.
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Sen. Diane Feinstein posture about their concern (Sen. Barbara Boxer can’t even be bothered to meet with local officials), and the region’s Democratic congressmen, including Reps. Dennis Cardoza and Jim Costa, pledge action, but the president, his senior officials and congressional allies have done nothing. A new man-made dust bowl is taking shape, and the devastation is palpable.
Former Fresno Mayor Alan Autry was a guest on my broadcast from the city’s downtown last week. He told the audience about a food distribution day that drew 15,000 people.
Third-generation farmers admitted on air that they couldn’t imagine how they can hold onto their farms if the water isn’t turned back on and with the assurance of stability so the annual cycle of preparation and planting that must begin now can proceed, backed by financing that won’t be forthcoming unless the banks see the near certainty that the water will flow throughout 2010.
President Barack Obama doesn’t need a jobs summit or a second stimulus to create thousands of jobs overnight. All he has to do is order — order — his staff to insist that Congress include relief in the appropriations bills headed his way.
Or, Obama could order Salazar to conduct a rapid review by serious science of the deeply politicized findings that led to the water cutoff. There is much suspicion about the agency’s deliberations here that a National Academy of Sciences review of the data has been promised by Salazar and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, but it will take months and months to complete. The president could demand his team work like their jobs were in as much jeopardy as those in the Valley.
Alternatively, U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger could order that the restrictions on water delivery imposed by the U.s. Fish and Wildlife Service on Dec. 15, 2008, be lifted until an environmental impact statement is prepared by the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation that wholly and fairly assesses the consequences of the service’s job-destroying diktat. The judge ruled just last week that farmers and water agencies were entitled to summary judgment on their claim that the feds had acted contrary to the National Environmental Policy Act.
The court has scheduled a hearing on potential remedies for Nov. 24, two days before Thanksgiving. If Wanger orders the suspension of the draconian “biological opinion” that imposed the water cutoff and mandated the drought, it will be a festive Thanksgiving in the Valley.
Christmas will be brighter for tens of thousands of workers and farmers and their families, who have seen their livelihoods imperiled by radical environmentalists and bogus “science.”
But if the judge doesn’t act and Obama continues to give speeches and hold “summits” instead of ordering relief, a grim 2009 will turn into a catastrophic 2010.
Examiner columnist Hugh Hewitt is a law professor at Chapman University Law School and a nationally syndicated radio talk show host who blogs daily at www.hughhewitt.com.