Drought’s real victims

It was fishermen, not farmers, who suffered most

Think back a year or so, to last summer, when San Joaquin Valley farmers were predicting economic disaster because of reduced water allotments. That’s when Fox News blowhard Sean Hannity descended on Fresno County’s west side to accuse federal officials and environmentalists of turning the region into a modern dust bowl to protect “a two-inch fish,” the Delta smelt.

In his zeal to condemn environmentalists and federal officials and make wealthy westside corporate agribusinesses happy, Hannity conveniently ignored the impact Delta pumping schedules had on the recreational and commercial fishing industries in Northern California. So much water had been pulled from the Delta to send southward that the salmon fishery collapsed, and the salmon harvest was essentially wiped out, putting thousands of fishermen out of business.

Yes, the drought hurt the valley. Westside towns like Mendota and Huron that are populated mostly by farm workers were hit especially hard. And Fresno County farm revenues were indeed down last year—but by only 4.5 percent, according to the county’s annual crop report, issued in mid-June. The county produced $5.4 billion in receipts, exceeding $5 billion for the third year in a row.

This year there’s been more water, and life has gotten better in the San Joaquin Valley. The real problem in 2009 was the drought, not environmentalists or federal officials, as Hannity so grandiosely charged. And the real long-term victims were not the westside growers, or even their employees, who today are back at work, but rather the fishermen along the coast, who must contend with depleted fisheries for years to come because of the ability of the powerful ag industry to divert water southward.