California's Salmon Fishermen & Central Valley Agribusinesses: What About Co-Equal Goals?

Today marks the first day in more than two years that commercial fishermen in California and much of Oregon can fish for salmon.  The closure of the salmon fishery, the first in California’s history, was devastating for salmon fishermen and fishing communities, resulting in thousands of lost jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in lost income in 2008 and 2009.  2009 saw zero income from salmon fishing in California.

Agribusinesses in the Central Valley have generated a lot of media coverage over reduced water allocations in 2009.  But as the Monterey County Herald noted in a recent editorial (“Sky hasn’t fallen over water allocation reduction”), Fresno County posted $5.4 billion dollars in farm revenue in 2009 (the second highest total ever), despite a 10% water allocation for the Westlands Water District. The Fresno Bee recently quoted one businessman who noted that it was simple “Economics 101” that crop prices increase when supplies are reduced, helping to explain Fresno County’s success in 2009.   Farmers also adapted by changing what crops they grow, as my colleague wrote about here.  And the LA Times reported earlier this year about how farm jobs actually increased in 2009, despite the low water allocations.  

That was 2009.  So how will salmon fishermen and agribusinesses do this year? 

This year – which is still a below normal water year type -- Westlands will receive 45% of its maximum CVP contract amount, and with other transfers and supplies, it is reporting that it will have more than 933,000 acre feet of surface water.  And Westlands is estimating it may have 300,000 acre feet of water  left over at the end of the year. 

On the other hand, the commercial fishing salmon season will be up to 8 days long.  Barely a season at all, which will mean another tough year for fishermen and the jobs and communities across California that depend on salmon.   

Big Ag wants the public to believe that it’s endangered, but it’s simply not true.  And that's a good thing -- it's great to see agriculture in California thriving and improving its efficiency.  In fact, agriculture is outperforming most of the rest of the economy, with job growth in both 2009 and 2010.  Of course, some agribusinesses are helped substantially by crop subsidies and subsidies for water supplies (CVP contractors have to pay no interest on the loans for construction of the CVP, with the interest payments subsidized by taxpayers to the tune of billions of dollars over the years). That said, there’s no doubt that some communities in the Central Valley have been hard hit by the recession, housing crisis, and the drought, but salmon and other endangered species aren’t the real cause of these problems. 

So Westlands may have more water than it can use this year, and commercial salmon fishermen – who have been fighting for more water to remain in the rivers and the Bay-Delta -- have an 8 day long fishing season, after being shut down entirely for 2 years.  The supermarkets have plenty of tomatoes, almonds, rice, and other crops, but for two years there’s been no California salmon for folks to eat.

That doesn't quite seem co-equal to me.