SCHIFF: Federal rules leave drought-stricken California high and dry

The Endangered Species Act provides water for fish but not humans

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In the era before the Endangered Species Act was controlling California’s water supply, management formulas were calibrated to ensure water for dry times. Like money in the bank, water was husbanded, and deliveries to users were based on fall and winter rainfall and storage from previous years.

Even in what the media calls “the great drought of 1977,” San Joaquin Valley farmers still received a water allocation of 25 percent. Why? Because reservoirs had been used for one of their intended purposes — to capture water that might be needed in the future.

Now, after one dry year, 2012-13, and the current year that’s shaping up as critical unless we get many more storms like this past weekend’s, water users have been told to brace for no deliveries — thanks in significant part to federal biologists pulling the plug on California’s traditional water-storage practices.

The smelt regulations have also been imposing significant taxes on urban users. Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District, which gets much of its water from the delta, raised charges on its scores of member cities and water districts by 20 percent after the smelt biological opinion was first issued.

“The [feds’] environmental decision has impacted the flow of water to Southern California by approximately 35 percent,” a water manager in the Orange County city of Garden Grove told the Orange County Register in 2009. Remember — that was five years before the current drought.

Ironically, while the harms for cities and farms are real, the benefits for the smelt are speculative — as the “biological opinion” concedes. Numerous factors have contributed to the species’ long decline, and holding back water from people has not reversed it.

Let’s not water down the truth: California has suffered not just from a lack of rain, but also from a drought of common sense among federal bureaucrats. Congress is also on the hook for giving Endangered Species Act officials too much leeway, allowing the ignorant or ideological to push destructive agendas.

In a wrongheaded environmental strategy that harms humans without helping the environment, they opened California’s rainy-day reservoirs and deliberately let the precious contents spill away.

Damien Schiff is a principal attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation. Julie MacDonald is a former deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks at the U.S. Interior Department.

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