Thanks to a stormy winter, California’s long drought is over says state government. But California’s man-made drought will continue as long as Sacramento misallocates our water supply. Maybe it’s time to appeal to a higher but distant authority.
When Gov. Jerry Brown declared in April that the six-year “drought emergency is over,” he didn’t seem like a man relieved. Maybe because what followed was a weary caveat.
“The next drought could be around the corner,” he said. “Conservation must remain a way of life.” Brown’s warning was less a weather forecast than an acknowledgement, probably unintended, that policymakers have done a poor job as stewards of the state’s water resources.
Recall that the last drought featured, according to the Associated Press, water agencies “actively patrolling streets for violators and encouraging neighbors to report waste.” Turning neighbors against each other and inciting them to report nonconformists to authorities was a hallmark of communist Eastern Bloc nations. It shouldn’t be a “California value.”
During the drought, the Central Valley, whose fruits, vegetables, livestock, and dairies feed much of the nation, was parched. Lawns turned brown statewide. Cars weren’t being washed. Showers were cut short. But not because the rain had stopped. It was because of destructive public policy decisions.
One of the worst is policy that requires officials to pump water out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and into the ocean. At least 1.5 trillion gallons have been dumped into the Pacific rather than moved down state to millions of thirsty customers, all in the interest of the Delta smelt, a 3-inch fish that is state and federally protected, and a few other fish. TheWall Street Journal reported in 2015 that enough water “to sustain 6.4 million Californians for six years” was released since 2008.
Decades of hostility toward dams, reservoirs and aqueducts has also contributed to California’s dehydration.
Five years ago, as the drought entered its second year, economist Arthur B. Laffer and co-author of “Eureka!: How to Fix California,” recommended the state adopt a true water market. Though “California consistently faces water crises and shortages,” he wrote, “why anyone would describe California as having periodic water shortages is beyond us.”
“With water, California’s state and local governments have already gone way too far, and by their actions, have guaranteed major trauma.”
An open market, however, would “discourage waste and entice additional supplies,” and do what government cannot: efficiently allocate scarce goods.
It’s the right road to take, but a long trip for the current California political class. In the meantime, intervention has emerged from Washington, D.C. The U.S. House, with the votes of 14 California Republicans, has passed a bill its sponsor believes will restore “water deliveries that have been drastically reduced” by litigation and regulation.
The Grow Act, which passed the House on July 12, streamlines the permit process for building water infrastructure; forces Washington to speed up and complete consideration of feasibility studies for water storage projects held up for more than a decade; and bars federal agencies from forcing some private entities to surrender water rights in return for their continued operation on federal lands. Among the water storage projects that could benefit are the long-overdue Temperance Flat project near Fresno and the Sites Reservoir project in the North State.
It would also, according to sponsor, Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, require “regulators to comply with the bipartisan Bay-Delta Accord, which is consistent with the requirements of the Endangered Species Act” that protects the smelt. Rep. Tom McClintock said the Grow Act “simply redeems” the promise of the Bay-Delta Accord that the water diversions for the Delta smelt had “shattered.”
With both of California’s Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris opposing the Grow Act, the significance of Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, as the bill’s co-sponsor can’t be overlooked. He might not be able to convince Feinstein and Harris to vote for it, but he is in position to influence California legislators who will have state-level decisions to make if the bill passes.
Either way, it will be interesting to see how voters react at the polls after they watch senators from elsewhere do what California-elected officials in Sacramento and Washington have been unwilling to do.