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Fishermen and farmers fight over water in California

Facing a multi-year drought, California's rivers are too shallow and warm for salmon. Meanwhile, record production of thirsty nut crops like almonds and walnuts has diverted water from the river delta. But just as environmentalists blame nut farmers for bleeding the fish dry, the farmers are crying foul on the fish. Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports.

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  • Editor’s Note:

    The first 8 seconds of video in this report is copyrighted by Eli Charne of photobits.com and mistakenly was used without permission in the original broadcast. NHP has now obtained the permission of Mr. Charne for its use.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now to our continuing coverage of the drought in California.

    Farmers are preparing for state-ordered cuts in water use to take effect this week. They are expected to affect agriculture and people in the watershed of the San Joaquin River, which runs from the Sierra Nevada Mountains to San Francisco Bay. It's a primary source for farms and communities.

    There are already battles over who's using too much water.

    Economics correspondent Paul Solman looks at what you might call an omega-3 food fight among producers of well-known healthy so-called superfoods, part of his ongoing reporting Making Sense, which airs every Thursday on the NewsHour.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    California salmon are under siege these days, and not just from bears hungry for heart-healthy fatty acids.

  • MIKE HUDSON, Small Boat Commercial Salmon Fishermen’s Association:

    Last year, all our wild spawning salmon have died.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Commercial fisherman Mike Hudson has seen this before, most recently in 2008, when California's multibillion-dollar salmon industry suddenly and totally collapsed.

  • WOMAN:

    Just a short time ago, fishing regulators in Seattle voted to completely shut down California's salmon season.

  • MIKE HUDSON:

    If you wanted to see some grown men cry, you could have just come to California. We were totally shut down. We were not allowed to work.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Then, as now, California was in the midst of a multiyear drought, leaving rivers too shallow and warm for adult salmon to spawn, baby salmon to survive. But there's a new reason for the disappearing fish, says environmental advocate Adam Scow.

    ADAM SCOW, California Director, Food and Water Watch: In the last few years, we're seeing record-high levels of production for almonds, pistachios, walnuts, in some of the hottest driest parts of California.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Hundreds of thousands of acres of thirsty nut trees, one gallon of water per almond, five gallons per walnut, requiring the diversion of well over a trillion gallons of freshwater to the Southern Central Valley.

  • ADAM SCOW:

    The Westlands water district is the single largest irrigation district in the United States. Ten percent of the state's water is now going to almonds alone. As we have seen the west side almond boom grow, we have seen fish populations decline.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    That's because water pumped from California's dams in the north to farms in the south is water diverted from the river delta that flows into San Francisco Bay, ferrying baby salmon to the ocean.

  • MIKE HUDSON:

    Last year, the Sacramento River stopped flowing to the ocean because of, A, the drought and, B, the water diversions. When these pumps turn on, the water flow in the delta goes in the wrong direction, the fish get misled to thinking that they're going towards the ocean, when they're actually going to the south delta, where the hot water is, and that's where they get killed.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    But wait a minute, says walnut farmer Brent Barton. What about the water rushing through his own farm right now?

  • BRENT BARTON, Walnut Farmer:

    That's about four times the natural flow, and the excess is going out the delta, going out to the ocean.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    And it's going out to the ocean because?

  • BRENT BARTON:

    My understanding is that there's a few thousand salmon that they're releasing this water for. For the last four years, we have had these ridiculous fish releases going on. We have drained the reservoirs.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Barton's family has been growing walnuts in California for over a century, ever since his great grandfather Perry Barton migrated from Illinois to the town of Escalon in the Northern Central Valley.

    Brother Don Barton handles the business end of the operation, and business has been booming.

  • DON BARTON, GoldRiver Orchards, Inc.:

    Over the last 12 years, production in California has doubled, responding to tremendous demand for our product around the world.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Especially from Asia, where the very shape of walnuts has appeal.

    Do some Chinese actually think that, because the walnut looks like a brain, it's good for the brain?

  • DON BARTON:

    Yes, they do. But now the great thing is that these studies that have been published just in the last few years are proving that to be true, everything from heart health, ability to reduce blood pressure, antioxidants that have an impact on breast and colorectal cancer, bone health, brain health, and so demand has just skyrocketed.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    As for the supposedly exorbitant water use per nut, farmers like the Bartons reiterated what we have reported before. Per ounce of protein, it's a lot less water than, say, raising beef.

    But, as demand climbed over these last dozen years, so did diversions from the delta, up 50 percent, from four to more than six million acre feet a year.

  • MIKE HUDSON:

    If you imagine what a football field looks like, and then you build a water column that's 6.5 million feet tall on the top of a football field, and you lay that on the side, it ends up in Denver, Colorado. That's how much water we're diverting from the delta.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Annually.

    But, as California has been drained by drought, some farmers have suffered cutbacks from the dams and aqueducts that distribute water. And just as environmentalists blame nut farmers for bleeding the fish dry, the farmers cry foul on the fish and on the feds.

  • DON BARTON:

    Farmers in California have seen significant reductions in water since the 2009 congressional action which forced the Army Corps of Engineers to release huge amounts of water into the ocean for fish purposes. And when that occurred, the whole game changed, particularly for those guys in the southern part of the valley.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Ah, yes, water to the southern part of California's Central Valley, long a subject of strife. The movie "Chinatown" centered on diverting water for urban use, without which Hollywood itself might never have flowered.

  • ACTOR:

    Now, remember, we live next door to the ocean. But we also live on the edge of a desert. Los Angeles is a desert community.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    But it's not just communities like L.A. or, as recently featured in The New York Times, say, Rancho Mirage. Four times the water used by communities goes to making the desert bloom.

    The farmers grow annual crops, like fruits and vegetables, crops farmers can choose not to plant during droughts. But, increasingly, they have grown perennials, trees that, without water, will simply die, citrus trees, nut trees, and thus the backlash up and down the valley, and the protest signs lining the interstate.

  • DON BARTON:

    If we don't have water, we don't have a business, we don't have a livelihood, a way to continue to provide for our family.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    To which fisherman Hudson has a nearly identical response.

  • MIKE HUDSON:

    Our salmon fishery supports tens of thousands of good family, wage-paying jobs. That's not only the fishermen like me, but it's the wholesalers on the end of the dock that have people working for them, the people that work at the ice docks, the fuel docks. You know, it's always the fight between farmers and fishermen and so forth. But I tell you what. We fish sustainable these days.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Is this basically a fight between fish farmers and nut farmers?

  • DON BARTON:

    I would argue that this is a fight for the livelihood of farming families who have been doing this for generations.

  • ADAM SCOW:

    It would be more convenient for them if the fish were extinct, which will happen if things continue as they are.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    And, of course, more convenient for the fish and fishermen if the Central Valley would return to growing non-tree crops.

    But, for now, the fish farm food fight continues, at least until the rains return.

    This is economics correspondent Paul Solman, reporting for the PBS NewsHour, up and down the state of California.

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