Keppen says there are numerous examples of activist groups and the government trying to shut down irrigation in the name of a bite-sized fish and an over-sized political agenda. Farmers and their water have been under attack in the central valley of California over the delta smelt, and irrigated agriculture was all but shut down by the government in the Klamath Basin of Oregon.

Keppen says there is a determined effort by a number of interest groups to “reallocate” agricultural irrigation water using the tangled tenants of the Endangered Species and the Clean Water Acts. The Klamath Basin Irrigation Project on the California-Oregon border has been providing water for crops and helping with flood control for a century, but since 2001 farmers have seen their water reallocated to meet the “perceived” needs of a species of salmon far downstream. Keppen says such disruptions in the rural systems and economies “lead to uncertainties” in an industry that relies on advanced planning, especially in regard to the amount of water used to produce a crop. The ripple effect of this government action forced Klamath growers to pump ground water at considerable expense or move their operations hours away.

But, there is hope. Farmers in the central valley of California recently received a favorable court ruling that will require the government to reconsider its fish-over-farmer agenda that has cost the local economy billions in lost production and thousands of jobs. A federal judge questioned the validity of the science regarding the delta smelt decision and also ruled that the federal agency involved must consider the economic impact on humans when making decisions that can impact the entire culture of one of the most productive agricultural areas in the world.

The fact that farmers had to go to court to secure a fair shake is just one more point that highlights the need for congressional oversight of regulators. As has been the case in the West, regulations often deal a staggering blow to local economies. The farm and ranch families who are impacted by such sweeping mandates must remain engaged and involved at every level of government to make sure a little silver fish is not really a red herring.

EDITOR’S NOTE — Erik L. Ness is a new contributor to AFBF’s Focus on Agriculture commentary series. He is a media consultant and a retired staff member of the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau.