My job has me back in Southern California this week. On the drive down, between Sacramento and Bakersfield, I saw again an intermittent series of signs that I had noticed on previous trips, signs which read, “CONGRESS CREATED DUST BOWL.” In some places, these signs were located next to former orchards, now dead or dying.
The signs told me a story, as I drove southward in 105 degree heat, beneath the plumes of smoke from a couple of distant fires. First, they were evidence of the stress under which large industrial agribusinesses are now operating in this time of resource constraints and altered climate. According to a USDA report, California's snowpack contained nearly 30 percent less water than normal this last March.
California now has over 36 million people, a sizable fraction of whom are Southern Californians. Each of them seems to want enough water to wash his SUV, fill up his pool and water his lawn. Some of them work for realtors and developers who want to get rich from enticing yet more people to move here. All these residents must compete with each other and with farmers over a dwindling supply, as the Sacramento and Colorado rivers are under stress from excessive use. Many of the competing commercial interests who rule the California economy would each like to maximize their share of the available water, as their commercial success depends on it. Yet it is no longer possible.
My friends and coworkers here are telling me that Los Angeles County and Orange County have now imposed mandatory water use restrictions on residents. There's a news report from April of this year stating that San Diego County will start reducing water deliveries to its residents, starting in July. On all sides are signs that the residents of this state will be forced to start living quite differently, quite frugally, even to the extent of changing the way they grow their food. Big agribusiness will not survive unchanged.
Yet here were these yellow and black signs in the desert (that's right – it's a desert), a visual howl of existential angst and rage against reality printed in bold block letters. It seems that the man who put the signs up believes that if Congress or the State government simply relaxed environmental restrictions designed to protect some of the endangered Sacramento River fish, happy days would be here again, and the desert would burst into magical bloom. This man has friends among watchers of Fox News and its talking heads. They don't understand that the endangered status of the fish is one of the symptoms of larger limits that they will have to face whether they want to or not. Those limits are not the fault of Congress.