SAN JOAQUIN VALLEY, Calif. - A battle over a precious natural resource is being waged in California. It's a "water war" pitting farmers against environmentalists, and it could potentially affect the entire country.
Bob Diedrich has lived through many changes over the last 40 years, while farming about a thousand acres in California's San Joaquin Valley.
Drought conditions and environmental regulations have shut off the pumps from the Sacramento River delta, drying up Diedrich's operation to about a third of what it used to be.
A well he dug in 1992 has allowed him to grow around 300 acres of tomatoes. If he relied solely on the water allocated by the federal government, his farm would have been all but wiped out.
A Dried-Up 'Fruit Basket'
"Our allocated water -- I didn't even get enough to plant 50 acres of tomatoes," Diedrich said.
If the water is right, the fertile soil and Mediterranean climate in the San Joaquin Valley are ideal for growing a bountiful harvest.
"The San Joaquin Valley here is a magic place to grow over 300 crops," Christopher Hurd, owner-operator of a nearby farm, said.
"This region of California produces over 50 percent of the fruits and vegetables that supply the United States," added Sarah Woolf, a spokesperson for the Westlands Water District.
That's not all. Woolf said the Westlands Water District produces a third of the world's processing tomatoes and 80 percent of its almonds. However, you have to pipe in water, otherwise the area known as our nation's "fruit basket" becomes a desert.
Normally, Hurd farms around 1,800 acres in the San Joaquin Valley. Now, nearly half of his land sits idle, and the water used for those fields is transferred to almond and pistachio trees to keep them producing.
"Through a series of legislated decisions, they have stripped the water away from us for environmental reasoning," Hurd said.
Republican Congressman Devin Nunes, who represents California's 21st District, which includes the San Joaquin Valley, said an area the size of Rhode Island is now out of production. He said more acres may follow because the government has cut back water allocated to farmers.
"They took the water away," Nunes explained. "They started in 1992, and they continued to ratchet it down, ratchet it down, ratchet it down, to where now we are in a dire situation where they're going to take the 'Garden of Eden,' the most productive farmland in the world, and they're destroying it."
Nunes said lawsuits from radical environmentalists, as well as the actions of liberal lawmakers in Congress, have fundamentally changed the way California distributes its water.
For example, large amounts of fresh water are diverted away from communities, as he believes animals and the ecosystem have taken priority over people -- animals like hypomesus transpacificus, a.k.a, the tiny bait fish called the delta smelt.
Environmentalists and their allies believe pumping water from the delta to irrigate farmland harms fish on the endangered species list, like the smelt and chinook salmon.
"Some have these twisted views that the Valley should go back to a desert; others just want the political power. But the two together make a dangerous combination," Nunes said.
The California congressman wrote on his Web site, "To this end, environmental radicals, operating in the name of Gaia, Mother Earth, the Wiccan religion and a host of other cult-like organizations, have litigated, legislated and extorted away the water needed for San Joaquin Valley communities."
"Last time I looked, I think there was about a 130 fish that had been put onto the list, and there's never been one taken off, not one, despite millions and millions and millions of gallons of water going out, flushing out to the ocean, to protect the fish," Nunes said.
"That is putting fish in front of man under the Endangered Species Act and potentially threatening our food supply," Hurd said.
Fallow Ground, Fallow Lives
Less water, of course, means less product, which in turn, means higher prices for everyone at the grocery store.
"I'm in the grocery business, and I see already the impacts when they have the less water, so it drove the price of anything with tomatoes -- from tomato paste, tomato ketchup, tomato puree," Robert Silva, mayor of Mendota, Calif., said. "The effect goes for everybody, so every housewife in the United States."
Mendota, located in the San Joaquin Valley, has the highest unemployment rate in California -- around 40 percent. Silva said people out of work is a direct result of extreme water cutbacks.
A food line in the San Joaquin city of Firebaugh is proof that times are tough during the water wars. When land is fallow because of no water, farmers have to lay off their employees.
CBN News found one line that had around 1,500 people, including farm workers and their families, lining up for free food from the community food bank. In some cases, its food from overseas, like carrots from China.
"You have a man-made drought and a natural drought that's choking us, and so that's why you see those lines of folks back there," Jose Antonio Ramirez, Firebaugh city manager, said. "And I'm telling you, it's probably going to get worse before it gets better."
Ramirez said he wants government leaders to visit Firebaugh and talk to people waiting in lines to better understand their struggle.
A Vote Fish or Farm
CBN News requested an on-camera interview with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., about the water wars. Her office referred us to a statement on her Web site, where she discusses a recent study on the delta.
"I strongly urge the Departments of the Interior and Commerce to take immediate action to implement the biological opinions with additional flexibility wherever possible, particularly with respect to the likely water limitations this April and May, so that we can ensure that any federal actions to restrict water supplies are absolutely necessary," Feinstein said.
Nunes believes laws like the Endangered Species Act need to be fixed, and he's calling on voters.
"Hopefully, there'll be a change in the government in November, because I'm down to thinking that's the only way that we're actually going to be able to do anything," he said.
Faced with acres of dried-up land and rising food prices, the decision for voters may come down to extinction for a bait fish, or for the farmers and farm workers who feed much of the country.