Economy, Regs, & Taxes

Smelting Down the Water Supply

California's drought has as much to do with bad policy as dry weather.

Allyne Caan · Apr. 9, 2015

Call it potty policy. This week, California took aim at the porcelain throne, mandating that all toilets — along with urinals and faucets — sold in the state after Jan. 1, 2016, conserve water. It’s part of a frantic effort to do anything to manage the state’s severe drought without actually doing what’s needed to manage the state’s severe drought.

While it’s true that California is in the fourth year of below-average precipitation, and that January and March of this year have been particularly dry, neither of these things is fully to blame for the intensity of the drought’s impact. Instead, the culprit is bad government policy and a three-inch fish.

Despite population growth, California has not completed a major water infrastructure project in nearly 50 years. Indeed, Democrats, including Governor Jerry Brown, have opposed state and federal water projects since the 1970s. And while California voters have authorized $22 billion in water bonds since 2000, most of the money has gone to environmental projects and not to safeguarding and improving water supply.

Then there’s the Delta smelt. The little swimmers, whose most appreciated contribution to society arguably comes in conjunction with the word “fried,” have become so revered by ecofascists that they’re willing to imperil the entire state to save them. Delta smelt are native to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in northern California, and a federal rule from the 1970s limits diversion of water from this northern delta to the San Joaquin Valley and southern California — all for the sake of the smelt.

The ridiculousness becomes apparent when you consider that in the past two years more than 2.6 million acre-feet of water were let out into the San Francisco Bay because there was not enough capacity north of the delta to store the water, and the “save the smelt” policies wouldn’t allow the water to be sent to reservoirs south of the delta. So instead, the water was wasted.

Indeed, as The Wall Street Journal notes, “During normal [rainfall] years, the state should replenish reservoirs. However, environmental regulations require that about 4.4 million acre-feet of water — enough to sustain 4.4 million families and irrigate one million acres of farmland — be diverted to ecological purposes.”

And the problem is nothing new. A year ago, California, populated by thriving smelt, was in a similar situation. At that time, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the smelt and against diverting much-needed water south. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California took the issue to the Supreme Court, which earlier this year turned down the appeal, effectively raising a glass to smelt and a finger to California farmers and residents.

The water shortage has become so severe that the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which houses about one-third of California’s water reserve, is at a paltry 5% of its normal average. Given smelt priority and the mismanagement of billions intended for water improvement projects, Governor Brown has now instituted the first mandatory water restrictions in the state’s history, requiring cities and towns to cut usage by 25%, with possible fines of up to $10,000 per day for those localities that fail to meet the mandate.

While conserving water will help, it will hardly solve a problem decades in the making. For this, a good lesson is needed in prioritizing humans over fish. Now, please pass the tartar sauce.

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