For California Gov. Jerry Brown to crack down on shower-taking and toilet-flushing to save precious quarts of water as millions of gallons flow into the Pacific Ocean doesn’t make a lot of sense to Travis Allen.
The Republican Assembly member from Orange County is among those decrying the specter of dead lawns, dirty cars and neighborhood water watches as California braces for its first mandatory water reductions on urban consumption, which accounts for about 10 percent of the state’s usage.
“For the governor to come out and say, ‘Look, we all have to now take shorter showers and kill our front lawns and stop washing our cars,’ that is not the answer,” Mr. Allen said. “Forty percent of our water is going into the Pacific Ocean. The answer is, let’s stop sending that water into the Pacific, and let’s send it into our cities, into our homes.”
With everyday Californians now on the hook for drastic conservation measures, Republicans say the time has come to focus on the real culprit: a state and federal regulatory framework, fueled by environmental litigation, that requires a certain aquatic environment for at-risk fish while making it nearly impossible to build dams and other water-storage projects.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy described Mr. Brown’s April 1 executive order as the “culmination of failed federal and state policies that have exacerbated the current drought into a man-made water crisis.”
“Sacramento and Washington have chosen to put the well-being of fish above the well-being of people by refusing to capture millions of acre-feet of water during wet years for use during dry years,” the Bakersfield Republican said in a statement. “These policies imposed on us now, and during wet seasons of the past, are leaving our families, businesses, communities and state high and dry.”
Environmentalists have long blamed agriculture for absorbing more than its share of water, but figures from the California Department of Water Resources show that farming accounts for about 41 percent of applied water usage. Fully 48 percent is reserved for environmental purposes, which includes improving the health of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and its most famous inhabitant, the delta smelt.
So far Republicans, farmers and business interests have been unable to drum up much outrage over the situation, but that may change with the Democratic governor’s historic restrictions, prompted by a record low snowpack and fourth year of drought.
The order calls for urban water agencies to achieve a 25 percent reduction through methods such as increased rates, reductions in kitchen and bathroom faucet flow rates and converting 50 million square feet of lawn into “drought-tolerant landscaping.”
Environmentalists laud the stricter conservation order.
“The days of casual waste and inattentive consumption are over in California,” Steve Fleischli, water program director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. “Now everyone will be expected to do his or her part to help save water.”
California Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins called the governor’s move “the right step at the right time. Now it’s up to all of us to do our part.”
But Mr. Allen says he already is getting calls from his constituents, who see such measures as a drop in the bucket.
“I think the biggest backlash is actually coming from just normal people, who are taking a look and saying, ‘Look, urban consumption of water in California is 10 percent or less. And so how does not watering my lawn or taking a shorter shower, how is that going to improve the overall water situation in California?’ And the answer is, it’s not,” Mr. Allen said.
Watering the delta
U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock, California Republican, said voters may have a tough time swallowing higher water bills and stiff fines — the State Water Resources Control Board allows fines of up to $500 per day for infractions — even as the federal Bureau of Reclamation empties water into the delta to improve conditions for the fish.
“It’s going to be very hard for him [Mr. Brown] to summon any kind of moral authority to fine people $500 if they waste a gallon of water on their lawns or sidewalks and yet have no problems wasting millions of gallons of water in the pursuit of making the fish perfectly happy,” Mr. McClintock said Saturday in an interview with WND/Radio America.
Not that House Republicans haven’t sounded this alarm before. The House approved legislation most recently in 2014 to restore some of the water now washing into the delta — and, ultimately, the ocean — for agricultural users. That bill died in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
This year Mr. McClintock has sponsored H.R. 1668, the Save Our Water Act, which he describes as “this radical idea that maybe when an area is suffering a severe drought, they shouldn’t continue to release water in order to adjust river water temperatures.”
Steve Martarano, spokesman for the FWS’s Bay-Delta Office, told ThinkProgress that allowing water to flow uncaptured from the Sierra Nevada mountain range to San Francisco Bay may appear wasteful, but it provides a host of environmental benefits.
“You frequently hear the criticism that delta outflow is just being wasted in the ocean,” said Mr. Martarano, “but it provides many other ecosystem functions: It dilutes pollutants, provides habitat for waterfowl and provides water-freshening benefits to the delta.”
The delta smelt, regarded as an “indicator species” for the health of the delta, is listed as threatened by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Last month, however, fish biologist Peter Moyle of the University of California, Davis said the species is “approaching the point of no return” in the wild, with only six caught in last month’s state survey, the lowest in 47 years.
“Prepare for extinction of Delta smelt,” he said in his March 18 post on the California WaterBlog, adding that the fish won’t disappear altogether because it’s being bred in two hatcheries.
Other delta fish in danger include two salmon species, the longfin smelt and the green sturgeon, leading critics to ask whether keeping water in the delta at the expense of crops and consumers has actually done any good.
“[T]he frustration we have is the agencies that oversee the delta have used the solution of eliminating more and more water from agriculture and providing that to environmental purposes,” said Gayle Holman, spokeswoman for the Westlands Water District, the state’s largest agricultural supplier. “But there’s been no identifiable benefit showing that fish species are rebounding or that the health of the delta is rebounding.”
Mr. Brown came under criticism from the left for exempting agriculture from his order, but he argues that farmers have borne the brunt of past restrictions. The current federal Central Valley Project water allocation is zero — for the second year in a row — while the California State Water Project has a 20 percent allocation, Ms. Holman said.
‘We need more water’
Dry spells are nothing new in California, but critics say the situation took a turn for the worse with a 2007 ruling by a federal judge that resulted in less water being pumped out of the delta in order to improve its health as well as the survival chances of the delta smelt.
Hardest hit by the ruling have been San Joaquin Valley farmers who depend on water from the delta to irrigate their crops. A half-million acres now lie fallow — plowed but not planted — in California’s Central Valley, the agricultural powerhouse known for its rich soil and plentiful fruit and nut crops, and where double-digit unemployment is now commonplace.
“You drive up and down the state on the [Interstate] 5 freeway, and you see the signs: ‘We need more water.’ It’s a common thing,” Mr. Allen said. “Farmers aren’t getting the water, they’re losing crops, trees are dying, and long-term there’s an economic impact and an impact on communities. It’s not good for our state.”
Ms. Holman points out that other factors have been cited for the decline of the fish, such as invasive species like the largemouth bass, striped bass and Asian clam, as well as ammonia and wastewater discharges from a local sanitation district.
“We’re not saying we don’t care about fish or we don’t care about the health of the delta, but thus far the solution has been to eliminate agricultural water deliveries and divert that water for environmental purposes,” she said. “And so there hasn’t been a balanced approach.”
Another issue is water storage. The massive State Water Project, launched in 1960, remains unfinished for a host of reasons, including opposition over the environmental impact. Mr. McClintock notes the state hasn’t built a major dam since 1979.
As the water crisis spills into the backyards of urban residents, Mr. McClintock says he hopes the result will be a “major reevaluation of the many leftist laws that have built up in our system.”
“A year ago, I was beating the drum to sound warnings on these policies, and nobody paid any attention,” Mr. McClintock said. “The reason they’re not paying attention is they don’t believe me. They don’t believe our policy could be so breathtakingly stupid as to dump millions of gallons of precious water in the middle of a drought to adjust river water temperatures.
“It’s such a bizarre notion, it doesn’t pass the smell test,” he said. “But those are the policies, they are being carried out, and, as our reservoirs [are] near empty, people are beginning to focus on that finally.”