Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Farmers and Fish

Last week in my blog post I mentioned a debate in my hometown between farmers and fishermen/environmentalists. As I was skimming the articles for my next rural law blog post idea, I ran across a Field and Stream blog post, “Big Salmon Run Reignites Farmers v. Fish Debate in California.” So, I felt called on to revisit this debate in more detail.

According to the April 8th article, the Sacramento River basin has become the center of renewed debate because, due to increased environmental controls over the last several years, salmon are returning to the riverbeds. When I asked local fisherman, Andrew J. Booth, about this bit of fishy news, he said he is excited about the salmon comeback and prospects for the local ecology and increased sporting prospects. He also noted that the recent rains flooding the Sacramento causeways and expected high volume snow melt coming from the mountains laden with winter weather this year will aid in the fish recovery. The increased water volume should allow immature salmon or “fry” to develop in safe freshwater habitats before swimming to the sea for their transformation into salmon. This all bodes well for future sport on the river.

Farmers in the Sacramento valley, on the other hand, express concerns about the increased sporting enthusiasm. Field and Stream writes:

“…advocates of the farming industry contend that curtailed water exports have done little besides put thousands of farmhands out of work and slash the number of acres planted. Instead, they blame pollution, overfishing and invasive species for the collapse of the fishery three years ago. "For years, the left has used the environment as an excuse to take more and more of this precious resource away from the people," said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Alpaugh (Tulare County). "It is time for Congress to give it back so that our economy, our farms and our rural communities can thrive."

Mr. Nunes’ statement, however, seems disingenuous and ignores some of the more accurate realities. Water issues, at least in rural California, can be bipartisan rather than the sole purview of left-leaning environmentalists. This particular disagreement arises out of the disparate interests in and between rural communities. On the one hand, many people in rural areas rely on their rivers and lakes as both a community resource for leisure time activities and to bring in revenues from environmental and outdoor sporting tourists. These communities have more than an ideological interest in environmental preservation. On the other hand, farmers, often rural, make their profits from draining precious water resources into their fields. My hometown of Dunsmuir is in the former camp, with almost all of its local businesses reliant on summer visitors who come to enjoy the mountain air, lakes and streams for both sporting and sightseeing purposes. In fact, Dunsmuir advertises itself as the "home of the best water on earth." However, the surrounding communities associate with environmentalist views or farmer views depending on their income sources.

Tulare County would seem similarly situated. While farming, fishing and forestry jointly employ 14 percent of the county, 17 percent find work in the service industry. The portion of that 14 percent employed in fishing no doubt prefer fish to farms. Also, east Tulare is primarily national park and wilderness (including Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks) visited by hikers, fishers and other outdoor enthusiasts. Towns located near these areas no doubt rely on this tourist activity for survival. Consequently, Rep. Nunes is only addressing one element of his community at the expense of others.


vlshaw said...

This is a big issue in the part of California that I am from also. A raging debate has been going on over the water of the Klamath River. It is too bad that this sort of battle often pits pro-farm against pro-fish. I think that if we didn't take water from the rivers and divert them down south we could support both. But if I have to choose, the fish were here first.

Chez Marta said...

The issue you pointed out is not new or unheard of: politicians benefit from pitting small communities against each other, neighbor against neighbor, farmer against fisherman. Whether it is erupting on the issue of available water, or on the issue of which school should cause, a politician can ride the coattails of all sorts of sentiments.