Sucking air on 60 Minutes

TV news magazine comes up dry on state’s water crisis

If you saw 60 Minutes a week ago Sunday (Dec. 28), you saw its 13-minute segment called “California: Running Dry,” about the state’s water crisis. Thirteen minutes isn’t much time to explain a situation as complicated as water in California, but to anyone familiar with the issue’s nuances, the report was severely lacking.

Unfortunately, Lesley Stahl and her producers reduced the matter to “fish vs. farms,” saying the reason Westside San Joaquin Valley farms were drying up and thousands had been put out of work was a judge’s decision to reduce pumping to protect the tiny Delta smelt. Two farmers were interviewed saying they might be forced out of business because of a 2-inch-long fish.

Nothing was said, however, about the fact that Westside farmers have the most “junior” water rights in the state and long have known that Delta water supplies are unreliable in drought years.

There was cursory mention of the overall degradation of the Delta estuary and the decline in salmon populations, but little about the loss of hundreds of commercial salmon-fishing businesses in Northern California.

Perhaps most concerning, the report seemed to suggest that the only solution to the crisis, as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger suggested to Stahl, is to spend as much as $40 billion on dams, reservoirs and a peripheral canal to carry water around the Delta. Schwarzenegger was his usual hyper-optimistic self, insisting that “Californians love to build” and “can have it all,” but $40 billion at a time of intractable budget deficits? Hardly.

It’s important to remember, after all, that we’re in a drought. But there is also much that can be done, relatively inexpensively, to make water supplies more equitable and efficient. One would be to make the price of water the same for all farmers—some pay as little as $10 per acre foot—and sufficiently high to compel conservation and the planting of drought-tolerant crops. Another would be to increase water districts’ ability to move supplies to where they’re needed. A third would be to regulate groundwater, which provides as much as 40 percent of the supply in dry years.

Fortunately, with the passage of a comprehensive water plan two months ago, California began moving toward a more sustainable water future. This information, too, was missing from the 60 Minutes report.