[env-trinity] Fresno Bee: Anger Alone won't solve the Valley's water woes

Tom Stokely tstokely at att.net
Tue Jun 30 09:53:26 PDT 2009

 Anger alone won't solve the Valley's water woes

Published online on Saturday, Jun. 27, 2009

 By Bill McEwen / The Fresno Bee (http://www.fresnobee.com/columnists/mcewen/story/1501334.html)

 It was a warm October night, and the hall on 13th Street in Firebaugh was packed with people. They had come to voice frustration about the "man-made drought," fallowed land and lost jobs.

 That was five years ago. Little has changed.

 Once-fertile land in the Westlands Water District is ruined by salty irrigation water trapped between the soil surface and layers of clay. Farmers scramble for water. Their deliveries are cut because of below-average rainfall and attempts to protect the delta smelt and salmon.

 People, again, are mad as hell about lost jobs, food lines and government indifference to poverty on the west side. And agriculture -- along with its political allies -- again is writing an angry narrative of fish vs. people.

 It's a sturdy tale, I admit. I've fallen for it a time or two. This script reduces a complex situation to black hats and white hats. And it inspires good people to take action on behalf of the hungry and unemployed.

 The problem is, life isn't simple. Anger alone isn't a solution. And idle delta pumps are only partly responsible for 41% unemployment in a town such as Mendota.

 Largely unspoken is the fact that foreign competition, retired land and a move to mechanically harvested crops are reducing the need for seasonal farmworkers. Also unspoken is the paradox of the Valley's reliance on agriculture: the world's most bountiful farm belt always has had some of America's highest unemployment. Nine years ago, 30% of Mendota was jobless. Six years ago, it was 36%.

 Now, two questions: What will it take for agriculture -- Westlands, in particular -- to shed its reactive, panic-driven skin? And when will our political leadership join with agriculture to focus on sustainable economic solutions?

 Westlands, as constituted, isn't sustainable. Not with the state continuing to grow in population, and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta turned into an environmental nightmare. The district never again will get all the water it wants.

 But, Steve Geil, president of Economic Development Corp. serving Fresno County, says that the west side is poised for an economic turnaround. He envisions energy "farms" -- solar, wind, thermal, biomass -- and, eventually, a nuclear energy plant -- complementing traditional agriculture.
 "Fresno is the only place in the world with these six elements -- land, air, water, sun, a metropolitan city and a reliable, convenient transportation system," Geil says. "We can be a center for clean energy jobs."

 Geil says the revolution already is taking shape on the west side, with scores of well-paying jobs added to the Firebaugh/Mendota area. He points out that farm jobs are increasing in Fresno County and that the county economy "outperformed" the state economy in March and April.

 Granted, Geil is a salesman. But I'd rather buy into his upbeat assessment of the future than to listen to more of the doom-and-gloom-holding-on-to-yesterday mantra of the Westlands crowd.
 For once, let's get ahead of the game. Let's think more, vent less. Let's behave like adults instead of railing against ourselves and the world.

 "We have been a fragmented county for too long," Geil says. "It's almost like we create our own problems. We have to move to a higher level of thinking, where we debate our differences and then come together to support solutions."

 The columnist can be reached at bmcewen at fresnobee.com <mailto:bmcewen at fresnobee.com> or (559) 441-6632. Check out his blog at fresnobeehive.com/news. Listen to his talk show at noon daily on KYNO (AM 1300).

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