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SCHIFF: Federal rules leave drought-stricken California high and dry
The Endangered Species Act provides water for fish but not humans
Question of the Day
"In this present crisis, government isn't the solution. Government is the problem."
With that famous phrase at his 1981 inauguration, Ronald Reagan called out the federal government for overregulation that helped drive the economy into a ditch.
For Californians today experiencing a severe drought, Reagan's words should once again hit home.
Of course, the weather is the prime culprit. Until a desperately needed storm moved in this past weekend, it had been a dry winter, — and the storm hasn't compensated for the months without rainfall.
However, the damaging effects have been magnified by destructive regulations. Federal policies under the Endangered Species Act are making things worse, not better.
The scale of "this present crisis" — what Gov. Gov. Jerry Brown warned could be a "mega-drought" — can be seen in some compelling numbers. Seventeen rural communities were put on a watch list for severe water shortages, and for the first time, water agencies serving 25 million people were told they won't receive any of their allocation from state-run reservoirs.
This past week's rainfall will help, "but we need more," as a meteorologist with Golden Gate Weather Services told the San Jose Mercury News.
It's not surprising that President Obama has scheduled a visit to Fresno this Friday for a firsthand evaluation.
While rationing has been promoted in many communities, and vast areas of farmland have been removed from production, people ought to be asking: Where is the water that should have been saved for a non-rainy day?
Answer: Millions of gallons were diverted from human use because of federal regulations intended to help a tiny fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the delta smelt.
The smelt is listed as "threatened" under the federal Endangered Species Act, and the feds claim it benefits if less water is available to be pumped south to the San Joaquin Valley, Los Angeles and San Diego.
For example, from December 2012 to February 2013 alone, more than 800,000 acre-feet of water that could have been conserved behind dams was allowed to flow to the sea. That water could have provided for the needs of 800,000 families. It could have irrigated 200,000 acres of cropland.
This flushing of torrents of water to the sea is a new practice in California, threatening to make not just the current drought, but every future one, far more painful than necessary.
The trigger for this destructive new policy was the feds' 2008 "biological opinion" for the smelt, which essentially said people's needs for water may not even be considered.
Result: The state's water "treasuries" were raided.
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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