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September 26, 2009

Mike Tharp: New sticker reads, 'Save the humans'

We live in a desert.

Not just us Mercedians. Not just folks on the edges of Death Valley or the Mojave or the Salton Sea.

Everybody in California.

The Golden State would have stayed a coastal and mountain redoubt for settlers except for the mammoth man-made water projects we all learned about from our history books.

Movies like "Chinatown" and books like "Cadillac Desert" by Marc Reisner have chronicled the water wars we've waged with one another and Mother Nature for more than 150 years.

"If the contrived flow of water should somehow just stop," Reisner wrote in a later book, "A Dangerous Place," then "California's economy, which was worth about a trillion dollars as the new millennium dawned, would implode like a neutron star."

Now we Mercedians are involved in another water war. Our people on the West Side and next door in Fresno County, especially the town of Mendota, are fighting for their lives and livelihoods because of drought and water policies laid down by the state and the feds.

The stakes became as clear as a desert sunrise on a recent two-and-a-half-hour airplane ride with Gail McCullough. The pilot, who grew up on her daddy's farm at Red Top Ranch, 17 miles south of Merced, flew us in her 1957 single-engine Cessna 170B over the khaki-colored fields, parched in the morning sun.

It reminded me of flying over Iraq.

Gail, a Realtor and well-respected pilot at airports all over the state, wanted me to see -- with a 360-degree, 1,000-foot perspective -- what's happening on and to the ground. Isolated tractors tilled tan fields, leaving dust in their wake that looked like smoke or a brown wind sock. Hay bales resembled Legos near the Harris Ranch feedlot. Bone-white alkali deposits settled like waves on the surface of the soil.

"Nobody can afford to drill down and get water," Gail said. "It would cost them thousands a month."

And in a "Sun Rises in East" headline, politics has imposed its own rules of engagement in the latest campaign. Thanks to our Washington-based McClatchy reporter Mike Doyle's superb dispatches, we know how the Beltway dust-wrestling has complicated any immediate solution to what our farmers and ranchers need -- water.

Just plain water.

The political dynamic would make a dull yarn, except for its importance. Grandstanding by our two U.S. senators and their House Democratic counterparts on one side, and Republicans such as Rep. Devin Nunes and, improbably, Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, on the other, has shed more heat than light on the issue.

It's much more complex than the lectern rhetoric, but one critical factor in the equation is a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service "biological opinion" promulgated last December. It "regulated and reduced water flowing into the San Joaquin Valley for the protection of the Delta smelt (a fish)," according to a news release from DeMint's office.

In June the National Marine Fisheries Service issued another biological opinion that "included salmon, steelhead, green sturgeon and killer whales endangered by release of water in the San Joaquin Valley," the DeMint news release added.

Five bills and a financial package were introduced in Sacramento before the electeds slunk home. All claimed to be fixes to our water problem.

In still more simplistic algebra, the latest water war pits the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and environmentalists on one side of the equation and those who want to repeal or suspend the ESA -- most of our farmers and ranchers -- on the other.

A UC Davis study in May estimated that our three-year-long drought led to a loss of $630 million and 35,000 jobs and 450,000 acres fallowed in the Valley. The study estimated total income lost from the drought at around $830 million. Mendota almond grower Shawn Coburn told The Associated Press, "If you like foreign oil, you're going to love foreign food."

The Pacific Institute's Peter H. Glieck tried to debunk what he called "myths" about the problems facing farmers and ranchers. "It's not the fish," he wrote, arguing that if there had been no court order to protect fish, water deliveries to the Valley would be only 5 percent higher.

While hunched in Gail McCullough's passenger seat, I remembered a story I wrote a long time ago. It was about coyote predation on sheep in the West. One of the places I wound up was the University of Wyoming, Laramie. I met the guy in charge of the Wildlife Science department.

He gave me some scholarly takes on coyotes killing sheep in the state. Then, thankfully, he walked me down the hall to the office of Doug Crowe. Doug was finishing a Ph.D in wildlife biology. He was also a guide for elk hunters.

The chairman introduced me and asked Doug if he'd talk with me and show me around. His cowboy boots resting on top of his desk, he looked at me over a Wyatt Earp mustache.

"Maybe," he drawled, "if I like him."

I still don't know what test I passed, but Doug led me to his pickup. Off we went into the meadows and hills outside Laramie. He talked coyotes.

"They're so clever," he said in a quote I used in the story, "that if one was on a tennis court, he could hide behind the ball."

As we juddered along the dirt roads, Doug waxed a little philosophical. He was talking about species evolution and extinction. This was an academic with a 30.06 rifle in a gun rack behind us.

"There!" he suddenly whispered and pointed out my window as he stopped the truck. Maybe 300 yards away in tall green grass, a gray shape was surfing. Up. Down. Up. Down. Its tail following like a flag.

"He's mousing," Doug said. The coyote leapt a couple yards in the air, then landed with both forepaws together. He was flushing field mice for a snack.

We watched this graceful ballet for a few minutes. Then Doug slammed his palm against his driver's side door. The coyote disappeared like wind rippling the tall grass.

On the way back, Doug Crowe told me one of those truths that stay with you the rest of your life. "Extinction is normal," he said. "It's natural. About 250 million years ago, 90 percent of all species were wiped out. Always been that way. Always will be."

At first that sounded like heresy to the first environmental writer the Topeka Capital-Journal ever hired. To someone who as a boy had stepped over any ant trail in his path. Whose parents had considered littering a venial sin.

But the more I thought about it, the more I knew Doug Crowe was right. Sure, we humans can and should try to prevent the annihilation of, say, the black rhino or the snow leopard.

But ours is but a finger in the dike of evolution.

When it comes to picking whether to protect a fresh-water species or to help an almond grower in Mendota survive, here's where I come out:

Save the human.

So I favor suspending the ESA. Look hard at its provisions. Keep those that accommodate Americans' livelihoods vs. twisting human laws into knots that won't -- in the long, long run -- save a fairy shrimp or a smelt.

Like affirmative action (which is a policy, not a law), the ESA has outlived its usefulness. Rewrite it in a sensible, reasonable way. Food, jobs and human habitat are on the line.

I'll take us.

"Fish are important," Gail said as we headed back to Merced. Most of the horizon stretching from the Sierra was cupped in a purple haze. "But people have to make a living."

Otherwise, there'll be one more endangered species.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or

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