Mythbusters: the Truth about Farming and Fishing Jobs in California

In 2009, the State’s salmon fishery was shut down for the second year in a row, resulting in boats tied up at the docks and thousands of fishermen out of work.  2009 also was the third year of the drought in California, resulting in fallowing of farmland, particularly in parts of the Central Valley.  For more than a year, competing analyses of the economic impacts of the drought and environmental protections in the Delta have taken center stage in the media and in Congress.  The hype over these impacts reached a fever pitch on Sean Hannity’s show just over a year ago. 

Only one problem – Hannity got the facts completely wrong, and now the data is available to prove it. 

Yesterday, the two economists who have most closely analyzed the impacts of drought and environmental protections in the Delta issued a joint, updated report on the impacts in 2009.  The joint report found that there were real impacts to farmers and farm workers, but that those impacts were dramatically lower than the earliest estimates, and that most of these impacts were the result of the drought, not environmental protections. 

Despite the apocalyptic rhetoric from some special interest groups, as a result of both drought and environmental protections in 2009, the report shows that farming revenue in the San Joaquin Valley declined by less than 3% and farming jobs declined by 1-5%.  Despite the low water allocations for some farmers, farm revenues in Fresno County in 2009 were still the second highest level in history, and California had record or near record crops of tomatoes and rice in 2009.

In fact, according to Dr. Michael’s estimate, job losses as a result of the salmon fishery closure in California exceeded the job losses as a result of environmental protections in the Delta, as the Contra Costa Times reported today.  This isn’t really a surprise; indeed, the federal Court in Fresno hearing the challenges to these environmental protections also concluded that, “the economic pain and hardship has been no less to the fishing industry that relies on salmon than has been the economic consequence to the Central Valley agricultural community.” 

The reality is, both fishermen and farmers were hurt by the drought.  Environmental protections in the Delta are critically important to save salmon fishing jobs, and weakening environmental protections in the Delta could result in the permanent loss of these fishing jobs across California.  And the data show that the environmental protections in the Delta had far less impact on agricultural jobs. 

Hopefully this report will put an end to the hyperbolic claims that environmental protections for the Delta cost tens of thousands of farming jobs and billions of dollars, and that protecting the Delta is a matter of “fish versus people.”  While that may make for a nice sound bite, the data shows it simply isn’t true. 

Ultimately, this report helps to demonstrate that California can restore the Delta, preserve our salmon fishing heritage, and sustain our agricultural economy.  And as California implements the new state policy to reduce reliance on the Delta for water supplies, and invest in a 21st Century water policy of green solutions, we’ll all be better off. 

(Intriguingly, my colleague Barry Nelson will be blogging soon about how the latest report from the State Department of Water Resources shows that these environmental protections actually increase the amount of water available to cities and farmers in dry years, making our water supply more reliable in the face of climate change.)