Trading Crops for a Fish?

While much of the country has spent the last six months dealing with unusually harsh weather and rarely seen precipitation, California has been mired in its worst drought in modern history. The state is currently drier than it has been since records began being kept over 100 years ago, with little hope of relief as winter snowpack sits at 12% of normal [i]. The U.S. Drought Monitor report estimates 95% of the state is in the Severe to Exceptional drought categories [ii] [a time lapse graphic on PolicyMic [iii] shows just how severe this drought is]. This is obviously an enormous concern for California and its residents, but should not be overlooked by the rest of the country. 


Satellite images showing lack of snow cover in the Sierra Nevadas and overall aeration of California’s central farm lands.

California has the largest agricultural economy in the country, responsible for $44.7 billion in agricultural products. The drought is already having a large affect on the industry, and food prices nationwide are expected to continually creep higher as California farmers are forced to put over 500,000 acres in fallow this year [iv]. The severe drought is obviously largely at fault for the agricultural issues, but other factors also come into play.

State and federal water management plans have long been in place to oversee water allocation between the northern and southern halves of the state. Northern California has historically been relied upon to provide water for the Central Valley and its agriculturally based economy. Because of this shared reliance on a common source, water rights have been a frequent cause of debate and court cases [v]. Most recently, in 2007, a Federal Judge ruled that more water had to remain in the wetlands north of San Francisco to protect the Delta smelt, a small fish on the Endangered Species List. This caused uproar amongst farmers and communities in the south who felt as if they were being treated as less important than a fish. This feeling resurfaced just last month as the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a prior ruling, keeping the original policy intact to protect the Delta smelt [vi]. As the drought continues to worsen and farmers are unable to grow crops on their land, the battle between protecting a fish and a way of human life is only going to intensify.

Another contributing factor to the current drought is global climate change. History shows droughts are a natural occurrence, but many people including myself believe the severity of this particular drought is due to climate change. Extreme weather events have been intensifying around the globe over the last decade, and will likely worsen as climate change continues to impact the planet.

Because there are so many contributing factors to the issue, an integrated policy plan needs to be implemented by the California state and Federal governments. This plan needs to include immediate disaster relief such as is included in the $687 million drought relief package passed by the California government, but also long term solutions to climate change and water rights laws [vii].

The fact of the situation is that no matter how much water is pumped from Northern California into the central agriculture areas, there won’t be enough water for all the fields. The drought itself is the root of the problem as it has simply been too severe for too long. Government regulations have no doubt played a factor, but are too valuable to be thrown aside as emotions run high. Regulations protect not only the delta smelt, but also many other species of fish, as well as the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta as a whole [viii].


Many central California farmers and residents blame the drought on more than just mother nature.

Farmers and many conservative politicians feel similarly to the above photo: that they are the victims of environmentally friendly liberals who care more about an endangered species than their livelihoods. At first, I even thought this was the case, but in fact the delta smelt being endangered likely saved the entire estuary ecosystem from being pumped dry to grow more and more crops. It is just one of the many warning signs that we must confront climate change and implement resource conservation practices before our impact on the earth becomes too large to handle. Mother nature has presented this challenge, which our actions have exacerbated. Don’t take it out on the fish to try and solve it.













  1. The drought in California is a really interesting topic to look into. Coming from California myself, it’s extremely noticeable how dry the state really is. From the satellite image, the Sierra mountains look completely stripped of any type of snow, which is one of the main contributing factors to the lack of water for the central valley. This drought not only affects agriculture, but tourism as well.

    Over winter break, I made a trip out to Yosemite, and the valley didn’t have a speck of snow in January. This affects the volume of water that leads into the park’s waterfalls, and takes away from the grandeur that it’s known for. Though Yosemite itself is grand enough to always attract visitors, I worry about the neighboring ski towns that solely sustain themselves on tourism. With such an intense drought, will people think of California when planning vacations? Such arid conditions have marred the landscape, and I agree that the state will continue to see many obstacles in the foreseeable future.


    April 23, 2014 at 3:41 am

    Water rights have always been a contentious issue, and without any sign of global climate change slowing, tensions can only be expected to rise. While global superpowers enjoy economic domination afforded by industrial and technological advances achieved at the unknowing future expense of unmitigated green house gas emissions, it is actually developing nations that are today paying the price for this unjustly distributed burden. Some might make the argument that developed nations are also feeling the effects of climate change in the form of from particularly harsh winters and tropical storms in recent years, such as hurricanes Sandy or Katrina. And these arguments have validity- certainly the increased frequency with which these weather circumstances occur can be attributed to climate change. However, without belittling the lives or properties lost due to these phenomena, I would categorize these specific incidents (such as a particular blizzard or hurricane) as specific natural disasters. In my opinion, this drought might constitute one of the first consistent detrimental environmental effects directly attributable to climate change that has the potential to tangibly and irreparably alter the infrastructure of a developed nation. Not only will this drought affect the California economy and the farming communities it comprises, it could very well change how we in the U.S. consume fruits, nuts, and vegetables (grocery store chains might have to switch to the more sustainable practice of only stocking in-season produce). While the effects of this drought are already being felt and have the potential to be even more devastating, perhaps it is the kind of tangible wake-up call we need to realize how imperative it is we start issuing policies and regulations more stringently aimed at facing GHG emissions and tackling climate change head-on.


    April 30, 2014 at 9:18 pm

    The direct dichotomy between environmental preservation and economic wellbeing highlighted in this post is very interesting. I agree with you in suspecting that, if weather patterns continue to become more erratic, similar tensions will flare up more and more frequently — perhaps nationwide and globally. It is precisely in these instances that government regulation is most important, and also when it is most vilified. The decision to protect the fish is an important precedent, showing that (at least some) lawmakers are willing to put a foot down and not cater to myopic economic demands.

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