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Little Fish Ignites Big Trouble

by Bev Berens

Published: Friday, April 22, 2022

Telling Your Story

Visiting California was never really a travel dream for me. But this week, I returned from a trip to the Sunshine Coast that landed Mr. Berens and I in Fresno, squarely in central Joaquin Valley, one of America's most diverse and fertile agricultural lands that leads the states in cash farm receipts. The scope of the ag economy there rivals the gross economy of some nations.

The first thing that struck me when off-boarding the plane was all the agriculture-related advertising and displays in the small Fresno airport. I didn't see crop protection products or equipment advertised in the larger international airports where we spent a few waiting hours. There was also a scaled-down version of Sequoia trees, and the Sequoia National Park is something I'd really like to see. Someday.

The landscape is unique. The valley is flatter than pancakes and when we were there, the mountains separating Central Valley from the coastline were draped in haze from our distance, which the locals say is typical. Groves, orchards and specialty crop fields lined dusty roads beyond the highway. The plants were green and fresh going into the area's late spring, but every corner of land surrounding a vineyard or field was brown, even though the area is in its rainy season. Rainy season hasn't produced much rain lately; in fact the area only receives 3-6 inches of natural rainfall annually, and they are gripped in a multi-year severe drought.

Captured water from the mountain snow melt is critical for crop production and dams hold the water fueling the valley's crop production. However, the water wars are full-scale between environmentalists, agriculture and urbanites, thanks to a tiny fish called the Delta Smelt, found only in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. This once obscure species has become the lynchpin of the valley's water wars, pitting a loud activist voice against the human and agricultural water needs in the valley. Let's face it, agricultural needs are human needs.

Protecting this species, which native Californians say isn't even native to the state, has twisted politics into depriving people and food production of water, diverting the water into the ocean to save one species, at the risk of an unknown number of other species. Some critical water holding dams have been dismantled, and this year, growers have been told to expect 20 percent of their water allotment. Twenty percent! How does anyone even begin to water a crop with that miniscule drop?

Water that should be nourishing food—nuts, avocadoes, fruits and vegetables—is instead being diverted and released into the salty catch basin of the Pacific Ocean—blended with salt water and rendered useless in food production.

Dam Water Feeds Us All, Keep Politics Out of Our Water, and Keep the Dam Water out of the Ocean are just a sample of protest billboards plastered all over farm country, along highways, and even on city billboards and urban homes. Think presidential election sign frequency and multiply by five or 10 to get an idea of how often the signs pop up along the way.

Hollywood leads us all to believe that the state is a big old liberal playground. Truth is, the valley and surrounding ag areas are politically and socially conservative.

Everyday citizens are mad, and rightly so. Processing, manufacturing and support businesses to agriculture employ masses. The lack of water is a blow to everyone—owners, employees and of course, everyone who eats from the valley's abundance, including you and me. It is really a foreign concept to us in the Midwest who enjoy abundant lakes and streams, strong aquifers and sometimes overabundant rainfall.

It might be a different landscape on the West Coast, but farm folks are farm folks anywhere you go. They fight for their land, their families, the generations before who blazed the trail and future generations who will carry the torch. They want what is best for their communities and want all to thrive, not just survive.

I hope to go back someday and dig a little deeper into the state, its history and scenery. Here's hoping California's citizens and agriculture come out on the right side of its water wars.

Bev Berens is a mom to 4-H and FFA members in Michigan. Do you have a story to share? Email her at

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