The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Drought in the West
JIM LEHRER: Good evening from Washington. Most of our attention recently has been focused on the weather situation here in the East -- heavy snows, low temperatures, natural gas shortages and the resulting economic chaos. But while that has been going on an entirely different kind of disaster has been quietly developing in the West: drought. Drought of record setting proportions in thirteen states, from California to Kansas, North Dakota to Colorado. Unusual wind patterns in effect took the West`s rain and snow and blew it East, causing the problems both places. The lack of moisture in the western states is blistering farm and ranch land; agricultural products from rice and tomatoes to wheat and beef are in jeopardy; water rationing for business and industry as well as private use is already in effect in some areas; and weather forecasters say it`s going to all get worse before it gets better. Tonight, a discussion of this escalating crisis with two men faced with doing something about it -- Governor Jerry Brown of California, who is with Robert MacNeil in Sacramento; and Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland, who is here in Washington with me. The Governor must deal with it at a state level, the Secretary, on a regional and national basis. Robin?
ROBERT MacNEIL: Jim, California is the state that has been hit hardest, but apart from the trouble for Californians the rest of the nation will feel the effects because this state produces so much of our fruits and vegetables. The drought is worse than the gas crisis in one sense: an immediate change in the weather won`t make things immediately better. Indeed, experts are predicting that even the heaviest storms in the next, few months wouldn`t make much difference. It is Northern California that is chiefly affected; all reservoirs are low, some actually dry. In Marin County, north of San Francisco, residents are under strict water rationing: forty-seven gallons per person per day. Vats are at a premium, and their water carefully re-used.
In the central valley, one of the richest farming areas of the world, direct losses run to one billion dollars. Cattlemen alone say the drought has cost them 460 million dollars. Some famous California crops, like artichokes, are producing one-eighth of their normal quantities. Some crop growers have started to switch to less thirsty crops -- cotton replacing rice, for example and they`re not even sure that will make it.
Other industries dependent on water are suffering. A car wash operator in Mill Valley tried drilling for his own water to save his business, but didn`t have any luck. The laundry business has been struggling to stay alive by cutting back on its processes and trying to reduce the number of customers. Such individual struggles are only the beginning, according to many who see the drought and its ramifications spreading through every sector of the California economy and lifestyle before it`s over.
Governor Brown, you`re quoted as saying that this situation is like the "Dust Bowl` of the thirties. Why exactly is it like that, and what is it going to do to the economy of California?
Gov. JERRY BROWN: It`s like that because the drought conditions that existed in the thirties are being repeated, only worse. There has never been a drought of this magnitude in recorded history in California. 1934, 1924 were very bad years, but this is worse and it`s following on the heels of a very bad situation in 1976. So where we`re going is not clear, but we must be prepared if rain does not come; and we are facing serious economic consequences, we`re facing serious consequences to the lifestyle of the people that live in this state.
MacNEIL: Thank you. Jim?
LEHRER: Mr. Secretary, adding the situation in the other states affected to that of California, what is your overview assessment of hew bad it is?
BOB BERGLAND: We really can`t tell yet because we don`t know what the conditions will be like come spring and summer, unfortunately, and so it`s a very precarious thing, however; and we do know that the drought conditions in the Plains states has already taken its toll in the production of much of the grassland, which produces a good chunk of the beef for the country. We have about ten percent of the feed grain grown in the United States produced on irrigated land, and even the water supplies underground are being reduced as a result of this dry weather. And so we really don`t know how bad the situation may be, but it certainly bears watching; it`s a very serious question.
LEHRER: What about the "Dust Bowl" analogy -- would you agree with that?
BERGLAND: I would agree with that; I think the Governor has pegged it just right.
LEHRER: Thank you. Robin?
MacNEIL: Governor, until now you`ve been stressing voluntary conservation. A number of counties, as we`ve heard, have imposed strict rationing. You`re under some pressure, and you`ve hinted that you may be considering statewide rationing. How near are you to that?
BROWN: I`ve asked today that all the thousands of water districts of which there are that many in California to provide information concerning their water consumption this year as compared with last, what conservation measures they`re embarking upon, and what suggestions they have for either public or private initiative. People say "rationing," but that conjures up an edict out of Sacramento. Now, it may be possible to do that, but we must define precisely what people can do in the various areas. In Marin County personal consumption of water is down about sixty-five percent, but it`s taken them over a year to get to that point. And I want a program that is effective that enlists the voluntary cooperation of people to the maximum degree possible. What I learned today in a hearing in Marin County, though, is that local political leaders like to have a nudge, like some vigorous encouragement out of the state; and if it becomes necessary I`ll do that. I`m now seeking the information. I`ll be prepared to make suggestions next week and monitor the situation as we go along. It`s very serious; it requires the cooperation of agriculture, industrial, personal use. And the state is so big -- this is ten percent of the country -- that more paper out of Sacramento is not quite what is needed. What is required is an outpouring of public spirit that will enable us to weather what is becoming a very difficult burden.
MacNEIL: Have you reached the judgment yet that voluntary conservation has failed?
BROWN: Well, it has failed in some areas, and that`s why they`ve gone to mandatory. But it`s one thing to say mandatory; it`s quite another to prescribe the manner by which you achieve this. Some places, like Marin County, are basically homeowners -- personal consumption; others are factories, processing plants, canneries, farms, that require a great deal of water; and what I would like to see is that we minimize the disruption to the economy and to jobs while we maximize the personal curtailment and consumption that for years past has been just whatever people need, they use. And then I want to see farmers -- and I know they will -- take it into account as they make their planning decisions. Rice is a much more water- intensive item than, say, cotton or something else; that`s traditionally been left to the private sector. So it`s a matter of individuals, agriculture, irrigation districts and the state working together. And we`ll use state effort, but I am very slow to embark upon a coercive effort from on high. It may come to that, but I want to work into it in as gradual and as wise a way as I can design.
MacNEIL: I see. It strikes some outsiders like myself that you have almost a two-state situation within one here, North and South. I Just wonder why it`s taken until this week to get Southern California, which uses a lot of water traditionally from Northern California, to start conserving itself and to plan to give some of it back to the North.
BROWN: Principally because the southern part of the state draws its water not only from the North but also from the Colorado River, and their entitlements are adequate as they see it to get over this drought period; but what some of them haven`t really realized is that every drop of water saved in the South can be made available in the North because if the South doesn`t draw it down then the North can use it. And it may be that even the Colorado River may be necessary for other places in Colorado, or Arizona or other places. So there`s a finite amount of water and people are now beginning to realize that indeed this is an era of limits and. we have to face up to that.
MacNEIL: Isn`t it strange that Californians are appealing to the federal government for aid because of the drought when the state has not really coordinated or shared out its own water the water it has within the state?
BROWN: It`s one thing to say to the state or to the federal government, "Solve this problem." But when you say, "this problem," it`s a different problem in Tulare County for farmers there -- it`s quite another down in Southern California, in the cannery, or in Marin County for a homeowner. There are a thousand smaller problems that we have to involve the individual initiative and the diversity that is California. This is not a city, this is not just some thousand acre project; this is a state that is very large, and very complex and very different. So we`re only now sensing the magnitude of the crisis. People have always thought water will come, water is around the turn.
MacNEIL: For instance, three million Californians are not metered for their water at the moment.
BROWN: That`s true, right here in Sacramento there are no meters; and it costs $200 a house to put in a meter. And of course, people say, "Who`s going to pay for it?" So we`ll have to try different methods in different places. In most of the state, where you do have meters it`s very easy to say, "All right, each person gets so much water." In Sacramento you don`t know, so we`ll have to depend on community pressure and support to achieve the objective. This is something we haven`t had to face before. Back in 1924 there were six million Californians; now there are twenty-two million, and we`re facing a drought worse than what we had then.
MacNEIL: Thank you, Governor. We`ll come back. Jim?
LEHRER: Mr. Secretary, what does this overall drought situation add-up to in terms of food shortages for the nation as a whole?
BERGLA.ND: So far we have plenty of food to go around; we don`t expect that the drought will have any serious consequences -- at least, not in the short run. Now, in the long run it`s an other matter. We have seen a very heavy movement of cattle from the ranges of the northern Plains states into the marketplace, which has brought down the price of cattle to the producer to a point where cattle producers are losing money heavily. If this drought continues, the numbers of beef cattle will be severely curtailed and obviously, in due time, the shortage will accrue and the price to the consumer will go out of sight. In terms of grains, we have the largest carryover of rice on hand ever in the history of the United States, the largest reserve of wheat in thirteen years; soybeans are adequate, corn is plentiful, and so we`re okay yet. But we need to be very careful.
LEHRER: There are stories saying there`s going to be a tremendous shortage of tomatoes as a result of what`s happening in Governor Brown`s state because that`s where a large portion of the tomatoes are grown; and oranges, the same.
BERGLAND: That`s true. I was down in the southern part of Florida two weeks ago and looked at the devastation brought by that frost, which killed off all of the Florida tomato crop and reduced the orange crop somewhat. But California is the nation`s largest agricultural state, and the impact of the drought out there will have a profound effect on the cost and value of many of the fresh fruits and vegetables which serve the consumer of this country, and no one knows what-that effect may ultimately be.
LEHRER: It`s going to be an upward effect, is it not -- it`s just a question of how much.
BERGLAND: Very probably; yes, that`s true.
LEHRER: Let`s talk about the farmers. Of course, you`re a farmer by profession before you went into the Congress and then became Secretary of Agriculture.
BERGLAND: That`s right.
LEHRER: What can the federal government do to help th3 farmers of California and other places, who are affected by the drought?
BERGLAND: Most of the aids are a pittance compared to the devastating losses; I hear talk from the Governor of a billion dollars` loss so far, and more reports each day, indicating continued deterioration of crop conditions. So there is no federal program that can match that loss, may I point out. There are things we can do by providing transportation of hay from other areas of the western part of the United States to livestock producers who simply can`t find hay; we can move grains in to the livestock growers; we can provide emergency credit to those who need the credit facilities of the federal government. The sum total of these, however, is really small potatoes compared to the economic shock.
LEHRER: Do you think that the federal government should do more for the farmer?
BERGLAND: I think so. We`re in the process of getting ready with a new all risk, all crop insurance program; it will take us a year to design it, but this would enable growers to buy an insurance policy. We can insure our lives, our health, our homes, most everything but not our crop.
LEHRER: Get away from the boom-or-bust situation that now exists?
BERGLAND: To some extent, yes.
LEHRER: You know, the Internal Revenue Service said today that farmers cannot write off losses from this drought because they should have anticipated that it was coming. Do you agree with that kind of thing?
BERGLAND: I can`t imagine -- as a matter of fact, I`ve not seen that regulation, so I ought not comment on it, but it sounds preposterous to me. No one knew this drought was coming. We`re in the process of making some very basic and profound changes in the Department of Agriculture regarding weather.
LEHRER: I want to pursue that, but I want to get back to you a minute, Governor. Didn`t you know that this drought was coming?
That was actually the second year of it; weren`t you aware that there was a severe problem coming this year?
BROWN: I was aware that there were problems, yes; but I`m no better a weather forecaster than the people you have on television or that make a living out of it. When the rain comes is very hard to say, and we haven`t made a perfect science out of it.
LEHRER: What kind of information did you get about this drought before it came?
BROWN: We have been stressing conservation ever since 1975, and we`ve put out information booklets to the farmers and to the people who run our water districts; and as a matter of fact, a number of people were complaining last year that we were cutting back too much -- we were trying to save water in our state water project so that we could tide over the farmers for 1977 -- and a number of people complained and said, "We want more water now." And the Federal Bureau of Reclamation was releasing-more water than some of our people thought prudent; but in this business when you have it, you try to grab it. And to try to save, it`s the old story of the city mouse and the country mouse: some people want to spend today and other people want to save for tomorrow, and it`s a matter of wisdom. If we save too much now and the rain comes next year, then we incur unnecessary economic loss; if, on the other hand, we are over-optimistic and we use too much water now then next year we`re facing an even greater disaster. So it`s a matter of balancing each year what we think to be the probable weather in the following year. And who knows? There was one native American that I heard tell that this is the third year of a ten-year drought. I don`t know whether he knows any more than we do, but we have to balance one year against the next and try to be as prudent as possible.
LEHRER: Mr. Secretary, are we doomed to this kind of "maybe this, maybe that" forever? Is there any way to forecast these kinds of things?
BERGLAND: I don`t know, but we`re going to find out.
LEHRER: What are you going to do?
BERGIAND: I was surprised to learn upon taking office just three weeks ago that the Department of Agriculture has really made no serious attempt to apply the enormous body of weather information which is stored in this city and elsewhere in trying to devise an economic strategy on food that takes into account the weather data which is available. So we`re going to set up a small group in the Department which will interpret the information which is available. We have daily temperature and rainfall patterns for nearly a hundred years from about two hundred locations both in the United States and around the world; we have very sophisticated information gathered by our satellites -- public systems, which is being made available to our government and others -- and we intend to put all this into a computer from which climatologists tell me that we ought to be able to develop at least the odds, based on the trends and circumstances of the past one hundred years. And while we won`t be able to forecast weather with any high degree of precision, we at least can give the odds so that all and sundry know what the chances are and we can govern ourselves accordingly.
LEHRER: What kind of information, if this system works, could you give Governor Brown about the possibilities of drought or flood or whatever that is coming to California? What do you hope to be able to tell him?
BERGLAND: I hope to be able to tell the Governor that based on the latest scientific information available to us there`s a fifty-five percent chance that the situation will get better, there`s a thirty-two percent chance it may get worse -- I don`t know what the odds are; I haven`t any idea. But I think if we had some scientific model available to us that the Governor and other planners across the United States would have a better chance to guide the public. And the Governor pointed out the risks out there -- if they take these measures of austerity and the water users do tighten up and suddenly the rains come, then you have an entirely different set of economic problems which arise. And so we are going to do the best we can to anticipate what may happen. We are not going to be precise, but we think that it`s too dangerous to leave to chance.
LEHRER: I assume you`d like that, Governor.
BROWN: People want to know what happened to the rain; the fact is, as yet we`re not able to make much rain, and if we predict or we don`t predict it, if it doesn`t come then there will be losses. That means crops will not be produced and there will be serious economic impact. I think in the country we often believe that fruits and vegetables come from stores and that water is infinite, and there`s just enough air and soil and there`s no limit it. We are subject to limits, as people were two thousand years ago; and we can harness nature to some extent but we haven`t learned how to control it yet. And we have to respond in a more human -- I think in a more sensible.-- way. And there is a certain arrogance of power that lays waste the basic resources of our land that we`re going to have to change. We have to realize that we`re on this planet just like all the other species; and I think there`s been a certain degree of pride and arrogance that has not recognized that. Now, if we can take such measures as not only conservation but also finding a way to desalinate the ocean, then I think we have something. And I think this water problem is going to be more serious than the energy problem; I think we`ll harness the sun, or the coal or the tides, but when it comes to providing water I think we`re not as far advanced as we are in the energy picture. And I hope that not only the Secretary of Agriculture but those other people in Washington will provide some funds and some leadership in such projects as using the ocean, of which certainly the planet is well-endowed.
LEHRER: Any comment on that idea?
BERGLAND: No, I think he`s right. I agree.
BROWN: One thing I might ask, as long as we`re here talking,
Mr. Secretary: some of the cattlemen were in my office a fern days ago; and they`re finding a great deal of red tape in getting the hay from other parts of the country to try to take care of some of their immediate problems, and if we could cut some red tape there, get some hay out here at a reduced rate, people would very much appreciate that.
BERGLAND: Thank you, Governor. The program is unnecessarily complicated in that it is run out of the President`s emergency authorities and approved by them and financed by them, and administered by ASCS in the Department of Agriculture. We have a legislative remedy which will shortcut some of that red tape. Aside from that, we`re cutting into it as deeply as we can; and the big problem, I`m told, is in trying to find the hay -- they have to go a long ways away from California to find surplus hay supplies.
LEHRER: But are you going to find it and get it to California?
BERGLAND: Oh, yes; we`re going to do the very best we can. We have a search out now.
LEHRER: Between the federal government and the state government, is the mechanism there for these two branches of government to work together in a crisis situation like this, Mr. Secretary?
BERGLAND: I don`t really think it works very well. We propose to change that; I`m going to take on board a person who is skilled in state government who will work with me in coordinating efforts of the fifty state departments of agriculture. The USDA has never taken the states very seriously in the past, and we need to.
LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Governor?
BROWN: I`d like to see improved cooperation; herein California the federal government owns half the land and controls most of the water, so we do have to work very closely together, and I`m very optimistic. I spoke to the Secretary of the Interior yesterday, and I sense a new spirit of cooperation in this administration that was very difficult to find last year. So things are looking up, and in a number of areas I expect to be working very carefully with the national administration. And I might say, Mr. Secretary, if you`re coming out to Denver, why don`t you come on out to California while you`re here?
BERGLAND: Governor, I`m taking you up on your invitation. I`ll be there; we`re now working out the dates with your office.
BROWN: Great. Well, come on out and we can try to make a reality some of the concepts that we`re now discussing.
BERGIAND: Yes, sir.
MacNEIL: Can I pick up on what you said a moment ago, Governor -- you anticipated a question I wanted to ask. Do we not need a national water-use policy as badly as we need a national energy policy, with planned sharing of water on a regional or national basis?
BROWN: To tell you the truth, I don`t know. In California most of our waterways are intrastate; most of the water is contained within the state. When we face a drought situation it might not be a bad idea. Constructing these grand plans is not so easy; it`s very simple to say there`s a problem so let`s have a national plan. Putting the thing together in Washington and avoiding the paperwork, the bureaucracy and the red tape -- not so easy. So it may be a good idea; we need one right in California. We don`t have a specific plan for the whole state, so if we`re going to have one regionally or nationally that`s an effort that is even far beyond where we are today.
MacNEIL: What do you think of that, Mr. Secretary? Do we need a national water-use policy?
BERGLAND: I think we do because of the reasons the Governor has cited; and we have tended to take water and many other of our resources for granted and assume somehow that they were in infinite supply. And we`re now realizing, of course, that that is simply not the case. I believe that if the circumstances with which we are now confronted continue to worsen, we very definitely must establish a water policy. The question is, where is a federal role in this regard? I don`t think the federal government should come to California and impose standards on the citizens of that state; I think that`s rightfully a state prerogative. I think, however, that the federal government can help in allocating the federal resources in the distribution of water through federal systems so that we`re sure that we are meeting the essential needs of the country. This requires very careful cooperation between the state, federal and local and municipal governments.
MacNEIL: Does the Carter administration, which has promised us an energy policy by April 20 -- is it planning to prepare a water policy?
BERGLAND: We`re taking inventory to see what we might do in a tray that would make sense and be effective; and as yet we have not devised a strategy. We are talking with states, however, as to what they might recommend that we try to do.
BROWN: I might say there, on all these things, the problems that we`re now seeing that come about through our large population, our high standard of living, our high consumption of resources - that`s creating problems we didn`t design before. If you take a water policy, we have the Environmental Protection Agency, we`re talking to the Secretary of Agriculture, the Secretary of the Interior has jurisdiction over the Bureau of Reclamation, there`s the Army Corps of Engineers, there`s water treatment plans and money in Washington, there`s the Health Department on what the impact of a water policy is on health -- there`s any number of agencies that deal with this; there`s the Federal Energy Commission, maybe there`s public works projects that might be designed with respect to desalinization or dams or water treatment plants. There is no Office of Drought, there`s no -- really speaking -- in energy. For example, maybe we should have rotating platforms that pick up solar energy and beam that down to the...
MacNEIL: The Carter administration has promised that it is going to try and create a central energy department.
BROWN: But even there, NASA has some decision-making with respect to energy as it would be encountered in outer space; so no matter where you go you have the boxes arrayed, and it takes informal relationships as well as restructuring through reorganization.
MaCNEIL: Do you have a final quick comment on that, Mr. Secretary?
BERGLAND: No, I don`t think so. I think the Governor has fairly well outlined the dilemma. We have had very limited experience with this problem -- not since the major drought of the 1930`s -- and since then circumstances have changed. Ten million acres of irrigated land now that were not available at that time -- our dependence on irrigation has brought us a new set of problems.
LEHRER: Mr. Secretary, thank you. Thank you, Governor, in Sacramento; and good night to you, Robin. Have a nice trip home. Robert MacNeil and I will be back on Monday. I`m Jim Lehrer. Thank you and good night.
- The MacNeil/Lehrer Report
- Drought in the West
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