This is a story about access to fresh water in California, a story with an ending yet to be written.
It’s a story that dates back to the Great Drought of the 1860s that cut Southern California’s cattle industry in half and prompted Ventura County’s agriculture industry to transition from ranching to farming.
Because of agriculture, Ventura County has a unique beauty, heritage, community and economy — but our community depends on reliable access to fresh water. Without it, our rivers dry up and our crops cannot grow.
It’s not just Ventura County that cannot survive without water. It’s all of California, which has the eighth-largest economy in the world and grows the lion’s share of America’s fruits and vegetables.
As John Krist wrote in his book “Living Legacy: The Story of Ventura County Agriculture,” “Alone among the coastal counties of Southern California, the landscape of Ventura County remains dominated by farms, a verdant reminder of what the entire region looked like before the sprawling megalopolis washed over the orchards and vegetable fields of Los Angeles and Orange counties like a concrete tide.”
I couldn’t agree more. For the sake of our economy, and to maintain our quality of life in Ventura County, we cannot succumb to that concrete tide by failing to address the water needs of our residents and our farmers.
The drought we are experiencing in California is not just a San Joaquin Valley problem. It is a statewide one. Our reservoirs are at lower levels than they were during the catastrophic droughts of the 1970s; two-thirds of the way through the wet season, the Sierra Nevada snowpack is only 6 percent of normal levels. Here in Ventura County, the earth is so dry that tough old oak trees are dying.
Recently, I held a round-table discussion in Ventura County to hear more about how this current drought is affecting local growers and water users. I appreciate the time our water suppliers, farmers and county leadership took to meet and hear each other’s concerns.
Due to prudent planning, the situation in Ventura County is not as dire. Gov. Jerry Brown called on Californians to reduce our water consumption by 20 percent, and the city of Ventura voted to ask residents to cut their water use by 10 percent.
On Wednesday, the governor and Democratic leaders in the state Legislature proposed a $687 million emergency drought-relief package.
Unfortunately, in a cynical response to this crisis, congressional Republicans recently passed a bill, the so-called Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act, pitting one region of our state against another. It is a bill to nowhere and it will solve nothing.
We need a long-term solution to our water needs, not cynical gimmicks that totally fail to address our present and future water needs.
The stability of our economy and food supply, and the safety of our communities, depend upon us working together on a statewide solution.
In that spirit, Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein — along with their colleagues from Oregon — introduced the California Emergency Drought Relief Act, which represents a more balanced approach to the severe drought threatening California communities, including Ventura County.
It contains mitigation measures intended to provide additional disaster relief assistance, expedite projects to increase water storage, and provide flexibility to maximize water deliveries without undermining state and federal environmental protections.
This is a big step in the right direction, and I am encouraged that Sens. Boxer and Feinstein worked closely with our state resource agencies to put together this balanced bill.
Ventura County’s water districts have done a tremendous job planning for a drought, but we must still do more.
Moreover, we must figure out how we will feed our nation, how we will grow our crops, whether we can overcome partisanship and the ideology that surrounds climate change, and the regionalism that pits Californians against each other. We need to pursue new technologies, conserve water, protect our environment and improve agricultural production.
We must do this to keep Ventura County the beautiful agricultural oasis that it has been for the past 150 years, or we will end up fighting another round of the California water wars that inspired the movie “Chinatown.”
It’s our choice. We can write our own ending. Let’s make sure it’s the one we want.