- - Sunday, April 19, 2015

We all learn at an early age to save money for a rainy day. We can’t assume that we’ll always be as healthy or well paid as we are today, so we set something aside to help make it through trying times.

When it comes to water, we should do the same thing — though, in that case, a “rainy day” would be a blessing. California Gov. Jerry Brown’s recent order requiring statewide water use to be reduced by 25 percent — the first time such a step has been taken in California’s history — is, at least in part, a result of government’s failure to heed this wisdom.

This year is almost certain to be worse than last year, when water agencies serving 25 million people were told that they’d receive nothing from state-run reservoirs. This translated into a vast economic and human toll. A University of California, Davis study estimated a loss of $2.2 billion from the state’s economy.

The people put out of work numbered 17,000, most of whom were already impoverished farm workers in the Central and San Joaquin Valleys. As the study’s author put it, these workers are “from the sector of society that is least able to roll with the punches  … There are pockets of extreme deprivation where they are out of water and out of jobs.” Unemployment in some areas soared as high as 50 percent.

Although the drought and its causes are mostly beyond our control, we could have been in a better position to weather the drought if not for federal regulations to protect a tiny fish. In high precipitation years — when we should have been storing water — millions of gallons were diverted to help the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta’s delta smelt. This species is accorded a preference above the people of California thanks to its being listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

From December 2012 to February 2013 alone, more than 800,000 acre-feet of water that could have been conserved for us to use today was allowed to flow to the sea. That water alone could have provided 800,000 families with drinking water or irrigated 200,000 acres of cropland.

This water was forever lost to us in order to comply with a 2008 “biological opinion” prepared by the federal government, which essentially said people’s needs for water must be given no weight in decision-making. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals described that opinion as a “ponderous, chaotic document, overwhelming in size, and without the kinds of signposts and road maps that even trained, intelligent readers need in order to follow [its] reasoning.” And it was approved after a rushed peer review.

Though the court made clear that the decision was not clearly explained, it nevertheless upheld it, believing that a U.S. Supreme Court decision bound its hands. That decision, TVA v. Hill, held that protecting listed species must be the federal government’s highest priority, above the economy, unemployment, poverty or any other issue. Surprised by this absurd result, Congress promptly amended the Endangered Species Act in an attempt to rectify the situation. Still, the decision stands to this day. And, as it did in the delta smelt decision, it continues to cause mischief.

What have we gotten for the dear price we’ve paid? According to experts, the delta smelt is, for all practical purposes, extinct. The most recent survey found a grand total of six smelt in the delta.

Although the water restrictions don’t appear to have helped the smelt, they’ve almost certainly hurt the many endangered species in central and Southern California whose habitat depends on this water. Typifying the government’s myopic focus on the delta smelt, these species were given no consideration in the decision to flush water away forever.

We are currently living through a real life example of Aesop’s fable of “The Grasshopper and the Ant.” Like the ant that spent the warm months storing food for the winter, we should have spent wet years putting something away to protect against drought. Instead, we behaved like the grasshopper who sang the warm months away. It was easy to accept the delta smelt regulations in wet years because they cost us relatively little. But today we see the consequences of our failure to look ahead.

Jonathan Wood is a staff attorney for Pacific Legal Foundation where he specializes in environmental regulations.

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