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The drought & presidential photo ops

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POSTED February 13, 2014 12:28 a.m.

President Barack Obama is no FDR.

That is not meant as a criticism.

It’s just an observation to keep in mind if anyone believes Obama will be able to part the muddy bureaucratic waters to provide California with short-term drought relief.

Obama is visiting Fresno Friday to highlight the state’s drought. The Raisin Capital is at the epicenter of San Joaquin Valley water woes. Farmers are leaving fields fallow. Some orchards are being aggressively trimmed back to save them. Others are being torn out as there is simply no water to sustain them. Communities are bracing for skyrocketing unemployment as legions of farm workers, food processors and a whole alphabet of employers that rely on agricultural dollars to stay afloat face cutbacks due to less food being grown. This doesn’t bode well for the rest of the country. Given that San Joaquin Valley is the richest agricultural region in the world and the nation’s most productive produce area, food prices will escalate.

It was nearly 80 years ago that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt rolled out the Central Valley Project.

The San Joaquin Valley had rich soil and virtually perfect weather for productive farming. The only problem was water. There was too much of it during spring runoffs when rivers routinely overflowed their banks flooding thousands of square miles. Then by summer, the once raging rivers were reduced to mere trickles.

It was the big public works project that transformed the San Joaquin Valley into the promised land for tens of thousands struggling with the ravages of the Great Depression and destructiveness of the Dust Bowl.

Major dams took just five years from groundbreaking to the last cement pour to complete. From conception to construction they took even less time. People embraced the massive water works that eventually would create 13 million acre feet of storage behind 20 reservoirs.

Today, the mere mention of building a dam triggers massive hysteria. The environmental review process would make the 100 Year War a speedy affair in comparison.

Outside of disaster aid, there isn’t much Obama can do to help the situation. What is needed in the short-term is water. The only way that can happen is a shift in federal water regulations regarding fish, urban users and agriculture.

And even if Obama was inclined to do so, he couldn’t shift federal water priorities around. Government was streamlined when FDR launched the New Deal. It could move with lightning speed and it acted with the interests of people first and foremost.

Today government is a massive web of bureaucracies and regulations that snags anything that tries to pass through it. The more one struggles the stickier the bureaucratic trap becomes. Just like a fly whose fate is sealed the second it comes in contact with a spider’s web, the federal bureaucracy can snare progress, paralyze initiative and devour logical solutions in a manner that’d make a black widow jealous.

There is a move afoot in the House of Representatives to ease federal bureaucratic dictates on water flows for salmon restoration on the San Joaquin River and other water diversions related to the Endangered Species Act.  A bill in the Senate to help California weather the drought does not contain such language.

Where people now stand on the list of government priorities these days is pretty clear. Last month, the Department of Water Resources indicated there would most likely be no deliveries from the massive State Water Project – the Central Valley Project’s kissing cousin – this year to 25 million urban users and one million acre of farmland. What water that is still behind state-run reservoirs would instead go toward keeping fish flows as high as possible.

This means San Joaquin Valley farmers and cities alike will be dropping more straws into the aquifer. It could set the stage for Dust Bowl 2.0 if groundwater depletion gets to the point that it can’t bounce back.

Water in California is complicated. The Central Valley Project, especially with west side irrigation deliveries that were eventually suspended, did bring environmental damage to wetlands and such. But then again it was a matter of people or fish back in the 1930s.

Today, the needs of people take a back seat to fish.

There needs to be a middle ground especially in times of severe drought.

That is not likely to happen with this administration, this Congress or this state legislature.

Even if President Obama were inclined to relax federal edicts so fish and people were put on equal footing when it came to water cutbacks during the drought’s duration federal bureaucratic forces make it impossible for that to happen.

That means Friday’s presidential visit is simply a nice photo op.

Let’s just hope the President doesn’t leave the water running when he is brushing his teeth so he can smile for the cameras.

 

This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or (209) 249-3519.

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