Consumers around the country may soon be facing steeper prices for fruits, vegetables and nuts thanks to an obscure three-inch-long fish, called the Delta smelt, and the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
In California’s storied Central Valley, for decades one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions, an estimated 250,000 acres of prime farm land are lying fallow or dying. The parched area bears all the signs of a prolonged drought, but the acute water shortage confronting farmers and growers is largely manmade, the result of the Interior Department’s rigorous enforcement of the ESA.
Responding to a lawsuit brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups, the Bush administration, in December 2008, agreed to divert more than 150 billion gallons of water this year from the fertile Central Valley to the San Joaquin Delta in an effort to protect the endangered Delta smelt. With the federal government withholding water from farmers, it didn’t take long for economic devastation to grip the Central Valley. Unemployment in the areas ranges from 20 percent to a staggering 40 percent in some agricultural communities. The Central Valley’s agricultural output is expected to decline by between $1 billion and $3 billion this year compared with 2008.
“Instead of stimulating jobs, federal environmental officials are turning recession into depression, and stimulating economic hardship for business, farms and families,” said Rob Rivett, president of the Pacific Legal Foundation. (Washington Times, August 18, 2009)
To date, the Obama administration has shown little interest in reversing a policy that favors fish over farmers. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was asked on a recent visit to the area if he would convene a special panel, known under the ESA as the “God Squad,” to reconsider the diversion of water. Salazar left little doubt where the administration’s priorities lie. Convening the God Squad, he said, “would be to admit failure, it would defeat ecosystem restoration efforts. It has been rarely invoked and usually leads to litigation.”
Angered by what he calls a “regulatory-mandated drought,” Rep. Devin Nunes (R-California) believes the ESA has already failed both farmers and fish. “There are 130 animal species in California on the federal endangered list, including five salmon species, five steelhead species, and the North American green sturgeon,” Nunes wrote in the Wall Street Journal (August 15, 2009) “To date, not a single fish within the California water system has been removed from the Endangered Species list over the past 36 years. Despite massive amounts of water diverted to help them, the ‘protected smelt, sturgeon and salmon populations have continued to decline. It is hardly unreasonable to ask why farmers should continue to suffer if diverting water hasn’t even helped the fish.”
Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D., is a senior policy analyst with CFACT.