September 18, 2009

Sean Hannity devoted to the entire hour of his Fox News show Thursday to a special reported titled "The Valley That Hope Forgot," all about the water crisis in California's San Joaquin Valley that many right-wingers -- including Sean Hannity -- are blaming on the diversion of water to maintain the fishery on the San Joaquin Delta.

It's actually a classic case of resource juggling: Giving water to the farmers in drought years might keep farmed produce turning, but it would destroy the fishery that supplies millions of fish -- and not just the delta smelt -- to the oceans and ultimately to our food supply. For the time being, the fish have won in the courts. Moreover, there are signs the water is returning to the valley on its own, since the recent drought appears to be subsiding.

Still, Hannity was more interested in demagoguing than in producing an accurate portrait of the situation, let alone helping find a resolution. He blamed the high unemployment rate in the San Joaquin Valley on the lack of water for farmers, and blamed that solely on the delta smelt lawsuits.

Near the end of the show, he had on his usual Intended Liberal Victim, for whom he could reserve such deep journalistic questions as "And I just want to know: How did you get your priorities so screwed up in life? What happened to you?"

But the Intended Victim, a fellow named Zeke Grader of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, actually bit back, pointing out how callous and indifferent Hannity was toward the plight of the people on the coast who have traditionally made their livings by fishing salmon, both commercially and recreationally.

Judge for yourself, but it seemed to me Grader got the better of this exchange. Hannity was left to sputter insults at Grader instead of actually addressing his main point: That defending the fishery is a matter of defending people's livelihoods, too. It's not fish vs. people; it's people vs. people.

Doug Obeggi at the Natural Resources Defense Council has a good piece explaining why the whole "delta smelt" claim is a red herring:

First, Endangered Species Act protections for delta smelt aren't just about a tiny fish. Nor are those protections only about protecting the Bay Delta estuary, the largest estuary on the west coast of the Americas, home to migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway, to magnificent salmon that migrate past the Golden Gate Bridge through the Delta, and to numerous native fish and wildlife.

Moreover, as local economists have pointed out, the recession, not the lack of water, is the cause of the economic downturn in the San Joaquin basin.

And what about the California/Oregon coastal fishermen? The folks whose salmon catch we depend on for food just as much (if not more) than we do produce from the San Joaquin? Well, because of previous mismanagement of the river, the salmon fishery from the Central Valley has seen an unprecedented collapse -- forcing a halt to the California salmon fishery generally.

A California commercial fisherman named Mike Hudson wrote a piece describing what life has been like for people in his line of work:

I’m pretty proud of doing a good job at it.

At least I was until two years ago, when excessive water diversions from our rivers and Delta totally destroyed our industry. In 2004, the Bush Administration issued new permits to allow the Delta pumps to export more water. And as these water exports increased, salmon numbers collapsed. So commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen, Tribes, and environmental groups like NRDC joined together and sued to invalidate those permits, and we successfully won better protections for California's endangered salmon and other fish.

The damage was already done. Thousands of commercial salmon fishermen like myself are now out of work. Our boats stay tied to the docks along the entire California coast all the way into Oregon while tens of thousands more good jobs are lost in businesses that surround our fishing industry. Closing the salmon fishing season affects everyone from processors laying off their fish cutters to marine fuel docks and commercial tackle shops closing their doors. How do you think the local grocery store in Bodega is doing now that all of a sudden 100 hungry commercial fishermen don’t stop by any more to purchase groceries for their next trip and thousands of recreational anglers don’t come to their community any more because there’s no salmon to be caught? Not good.

The Department of Fish and Game estimated that the closure of our commercial salmon fishery cost the state 279 million dollars and nearly 2,600 jobs in 2009, and that’s a conservative estimate at best.

It's not just in the San Joaquin Valley that these disputes over water are occurring. It's also happening in the Bay Area and in the Klamath River basin, where a few years ago the decision by the Bush Administration to divert water away from salmon and to drought-starved farmers resulted in one of the biggest fish kills in the history of the American West.

In reality, the Klamath River boondoggle was part of a larger effort to undermine the Endangered Species Act -- which is the same dynamic at work in the San Joaquin Valley. It's worth remembering too that the Klamath dispute was also a major recruiting ground for "militia/Patriot" radicals.

Thanks to thoughtless demagogues like Sean Hannity, that is more than likely happening at an accelerated rate in northern California these days, too.

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