Off the Land
by J. Greenberg
As the population
of the Valley swells, its freeways choke with traffic. Though tie-ups
and long commutes can wreak havoc with people's schedules, they can
have an even more devastating effect on the environment. Californians'
dependence on the automobile poses the greatest threat to the air we
breathe -- and in turn to the Valley's economy.
suffers from the 10th worst ozone levels in the country, but air quality
is a Valley-wide issue. Whatever the solution, it must come soon. Unless
Sacramento cleans up its air by 2005, the federal government may withhold
federal highway funds. Without this money, Valley drivers can expect
more traffic snarls and longer commutes, which would lead to even greater
learned from our experiences in using -- and abusing -- the Valley's
most precious natural resource: water. It is the foundation of our economy.
It powers our cities, and transformed the Central Valley into one of
the most fertile regions on earth. But our dependence on water has sometimes
undermined our aspirations, and our use of it has often been disastrous
to the environment.
At the height of
the Gold Rush, hydraulic mining -- washing away hillsides with high-pressure
hoses -- savaged the ecology of the Central Valley. Rivers were diverted
and drained of their water, while run-off heavy with silt and impurities
poisoned farmlands. But farmers fought back to preserve their land and
water rights. Their 1884 legal victory marked a shift in California
water policy -- a new direction that would prevail for nearly a century,
as California's fortunes grew with its crops.
But what benefited
our farms has often devastated the Valley's natural environment. As
more water was set aside for growth and agriculture, rivers and wetlands
dried up, and many native species dwindled. In recent years, significant
strides have been made to halt and even reverse the damage. CalFed --
the joint state and federal agency that distributes California's water
-- has removed dams to restore the natural flow of the Valley's rivers.
Perhaps their most important endeavor is the stabilization of the Sacramento-San
But not everyone
is happy with these efforts. Several agricultural organizations are
suing CalFed in an effort to secure more water that they say is needed
to maintain production. On the other hand, some environmental groups
complain that CalFed has not gone far enough to repair the damage done
by decades of unbalanced water policies. But more and more, these two
sides are coming together, as they realize that they have more in common
than not. Of course, consensus on water policy would be easier to achieve
if the Valley had an unlimited supply. But in years when rainfall slips
below average and melting snow water from the mountains fails to meet
our needs, the Central Valley must tap even deeper into its groundwater
reserves or learn to conserve
Because the Valley
relies so heavily on water, we're liable to think of it solely as a
resource. But from time to time, nature reminds us that it is also a
force to be reckoned with. Too much water can pose an even greater danger
than too little. Levees aren't always effective, and even when they
are, they often save one area at the expense of another. Ultimately,
the Central Valley must try to strike a balance between urban and agricultural
between generating power and preserving the environment
protecting against floods and staving off drought. There may not be
a "perfect balance" but we must realize that growth in the
Valley doesn't preclude conservation; it depends on it.