- - Wednesday, April 22, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION

“Water, water everywhere,

Nor any drop to drink”

“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” — Samuel Taylor Coleridge

California’s liberals are seeking scapegoats to divert attention from how that entire state may soon become another Detroit, emptying out as people flee. Scapegoats like almonds, alfalfa and meat. Really. What Big Labor did to the Motor City the environmental extremists are doing to California, threatening to create a new Dust Bowl with their misguided water policies.

Even now, environmentalists don’t want solutions. California’s 840-mile Pacific coastline offers prospects of mass desalination, which is used successfully in many parts of the globe. But the radical left abhors that idea. Just as they’ve blocked use of abundant fresh water supplies, they also keep filing lawsuits to block a $1 billion desalination plant scheduled to be completed this autumn near San Diego.

What irony! Natural drought helped build the Golden State. Now man-made drought threatens to tear it down.

The Golden State’s historic growth to today’s 39 million in population is sometimes credited to the Gold Rush of 1849. But the largest single migration was in the 1930s, when over 3 million people evacuated states like Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas and part of Texas to escape the Dust Bowl. The largest group headed west to California.

What one Dust Bowl gave, a new Dust Bowl may take away.

Water is essential to any society, so users compete for it with money, votes and power, subjecting it to massive government regulation.

Despite the state’s current major drought, California does not lack water. However, that water is not usually in the places where people want to use it. Government has rerouted massive amounts of water while declaring other sources “off-limits.” Governor Jerry Brown’s approach is deceptive when it claims to mandate a 25 percent reduction in using water. It is not riddled with loopholes. The Democratic governor’s order is only the latest confusion brought on by a maelstrom of government controls. Every look into that whirlpool makes you dizzy.

Half the water for Los Angeles comes by aqueduct from the Owens Valley over 200 miles away, a diversion that began in 1913. The current statewide drought is nothing compared to how dry the Owens Valley has been for over a century because LA takes its water. How LA acquired these water rights was fictionalized — somewhat — in the 1974 movie “Chinatown.” Since then, parched and angry farmers have used both the courts and dynamite trying to get back some of their valley’s water.

Before getting the Owens Valley water, Los Angeles had 300,000 people and no movie industry. With that water, LA’s metro area has grown to over 13 million people — including Hollywood, Disneyland and, of course, those beaches.

Today’s competition for water is not merely between different areas and different uses. It’s also a fight of man versus beast — if the delta smelt can be called a beast.

This is perhaps America’s strangest fish story because it involves not catching a big one but allegedly saving a small one. Protecting the habitat of the 2- to 3-inch fish has been a major reason for blocking badly needed reservoirs and irrigation systems. There are reports that 4.5 million acre-feet of fresh water are blocked each year to protect the delta smelt (with a lesser amount to protect salmon). Some groups calculate that the majority of California’s fresh water is placed off-limits by environmental policies.

With artificial scarcity comes real infighting over the available water. Many complain that California’s agriculture consumes too much, and they are angry that Governor Brown’s “25 percent cut” exempts agriculture — the single largest user of water, claiming, by one estimate, 80 percent of the state’s water resources compared to 14 percent by residential users and just 6 percent by commercial customers. Just by themselves, California’s almonds suck up 10 percent of the state’s water.

Activists are prompting news accounts to describe how much water is consumed by each crop. The Los Angeles Times printed a guide to determine the “water footprint” of different meals, telling Angelenos how to save water by changing their eating habits. Going vegan is celebrated. As one journalist wrote, “So what are some thirsty foods? Beef, pork, lamb, chickpeas, lentils, peas, goat, mangoes and asparagus. Less thirsty crops? Cabbage, strawberries, onions, lettuce, carrots, eggplant, grapefruit and tomatoes.”

Infighting is breaking out between rival crop growers. Growing a pound of almonds requires about 600 gallons of water, so some label them “the devil’s nut.” Thus, every pound of almonds exported from California (about two-thirds of the crop) is like sending another 600 gallons of water out of the state. A Gizmodo writer provided a punchline, “Less almonds=more water.”

But cut off the water from almond growers and California’s economy loses $11 billion in annual sales.

There is another agricultural villain: alfalfa. Not the kid from “The Little Rascals” but the crop, which is mostly exported to China to feed that country’s dairy cattle. According to some sources, growing alfalfa consumers a fifth of California’s water.

Don’t expect any solutions soon for the Golden State’s Golden Mess. The tiny delta smelt has big friends. Washington bureaucrats have the ability to reroute massive amounts of federally controlled water. But when Congress proposed to make that happen, President Obama threatened to veto the bill.

Is there a solution? Yes, several — but they are consistently blocked. The best thing to come out the whole incident is that California is teaching a lesson to the rest of the nation. We need to listen, and to learn.

Former Congressman Ernest Istook is president of Americans for Less Regulation. Get his free newsletter by subscribing at https://eepurl.com/JPojD.

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