- - Sunday, October 11, 2015

There’s a California belief that whatever starts in California — whether serving salad after instead of before the main course, or designing highways with limited access — will eventually spread to benighted places “back east,” which begins somewhere east of San Bernardino.

People everywhere beyond San Bernardino must pray that that doesn’t happen this time. The way the politicians in Sacramento and their right-thinking savants in the media and in academia deal with drought is not an example for our time this time.

Hysteria is more fun than facts, but California has always suffered frequent periods of drought and water shortage. In 1841 the Sacramento Valley was written off as “a barren wasteland.” The Dust Bowl droughts in Kansas and Oklahoma westward in the ‘30s created a literature of the Great Depression, notably John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” The wind and the grit sent the Federal Government into a Central Valley Project system of canals, pumps and aqueducts. The 1976-1977 drought was one of the driest years on record. The thin snowpacks in the Sierras then, as now, melted away quickly.

This time, after four years of great effort, Californians have cut water use by a third — well above the 25-percent reduction targeted by Gov. Jerry Brown. But there’s still not enough water. As Steven Greenhut demonstrates in a series of articles for the Heritage Foundation, the drought effects are as much man-made as by a wantonly cruel Mother Nature.

Nearly everywhere you look in California, the environmentalists run rampant. In the Sierra foothills, the state is emptying reservoirs to protect “unimpeded” river flows to save small numbers of non-endangered hatchery fish. The California Coastal Commission, a powerful agency with control of development, has blocked a privately planned desalinization plant over concerns about its impact on plankton. The commission, mesmerized by the environmentalists’ dirge of doom, wants to build a pumping system that flies athwart fundamental economics.

The Obama administration has joined in the death rites of the ideologues. Near the Oregon border on the Klamath River, federal officials want to dismantle four dams that provide water storage. This might preserve non-native salmon. San Francisco voters, who swallow everything, nevertheless vetoed a 2012 referendum proposed by the Destroy the Dams movement, which would have eliminated the main reservoirs for the state’s third largest city.

The argument centers on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, an area of about a thousand square miles of rivers, swamps, islands, orchards, towns and marinas which comprise the largest estuary in the West. Backed up by old dirt dams, a pumping station sends fresh water to farmers in the San Joaquin Valley and the cities in the south. But during droughts, the water, held back by the dams, turns salty. When a tiny baitfish, the tiny Delta Smelt, turns up dead on the local screens the authorities cut off the pumping.

Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed a $25-billion twin tunnels project which would carry fresh water around the Delta to the irrigated farmlands and the cities in the south. The twin tunnels would protect the Delta Smelts and assure a secure water supply. But Northern California decries it as a water grab by the cities and towns of Southern California.

Jerry Brown’s late father, Gov. Pat Brown, presided over plans for a statewide water project that included 34 storage reservoirs, 20 pumping plants, 4 pumping-generating plants, 5 hydroelectric power plants, and about 701 miles of open canals and pipelines. The project was to provide supplemental water to 25 million Californians and irrigates about 750,000 acres of irrigated farmland. The very idea of building anything like that today would send the environmentalists into a frenzy.

The lack of rain, in the words of Steven Greenhut of Heritage, is the least of the problems of California’s drought.

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