California’s ‘man-made’ environmental disaster

The United States, a vast nation of near unparalleled natural beauty, might have no more stunning an environment than that which characterizes the state of California.

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of taking a brief trip to the Bay Area where I sampled some of this landscape’s agricultural pleasures, many of which came in fermented form. The people were lovely and accommodating. The weather was near perfection. The scenery was positively inspiring. But the topic not far from every local’s lips was a worrying one. A debilitating drought that has forced Gov. Jerry Brown to impose draconian water usage restrictions on the public has many in that state genuinely fearing for the future of their erstwhile paradise.

During an Easter morning brunch, I sat across from a pair of middle-aged women who, despite their contentedness, fretted mightily over the perilous environmental challenges facing their state. While staring wistfully over the San Francisco Bay, one of these conversationalists bragged with mock humility about her involvement in The Cause. She noted that she eagerly devotes her time to virtually any organization with an ostensible environmental mission; Sierra Club, Green Peace, Earth First!, and what she claimed was the laudably litigious Earth Justice.

Turning again to the bay, this individual scolded the ill-defined villains whom she has devoted her life to combatting. Corporations, she said, which “only care about profit,” have devoted their time to dredging the bay from Oakland to Sausalito in order to capture every smelt in the ocean. This, she claimed, has driven the native seal population into decline and has forced seal mothers to abandon their seal children in search of the disappearing schools. It was a tragic premise upon which you might base a Disney film. But for all her environmental education, this individual lacked an understanding of public policy, the federal regulations governing smelt, or how this corresponds to her state’s water crisis.

There was a period when the various species of smelt native to California were over-fished, but that was a time largely prior to this fish’s protection by the Endangered Species Act in 1994. And while it would be overly simplistic to lay the entirety of the state’s water crisis at the feet of environmental regulations (In 2013, the state had its driest year on record followed by its third driest year in 2014), the plight of the smelt has led Sacramento and Washington D.C. to tragically mismanage one of the few natural resources in California that is not present in abundance: Water.

In 2014, National Review’s Charles C. W. Cooke filed a dispatch from California’s Central Valley, an area that was once an agricultural hub and has now been reduced to a virtual dust bowl as a result of drought combined with severe and unnecessary resource mismanagement. That misallocation of resources is not the result of a frustrating tradeoff between the needs of Central Valley farmers and the desert-dwelling populations of Los Angeles and San Diego, but the eternally threatened smelt.

“In 2007, the pumps were turned down; the Delta’s water output was lowered dramatically, contingent now upon the interests of a fish; and the farms that rely on the system in order to grow their crops were thrown into veritable chaos,” Cooke wrote of the smelt-favoring anthropogenic water crisis. “Predictably, a man-made drought began.”

This is a classic tale of activist government run amok — and, too, of the peculiarly suicidal instincts that rich and educated societies exhibit when they reach maturity. Were its consequences not so hideously injurious, the details would be almost comical. As a direct result of the overwrought concern that a few well-connected interest groups and their political allies have displayed for a fish — and of a federal Endangered Species Act that is in need of serious revision — hundreds of billions of gallons of water that would in other areas have been sent to parched farmland have been diverted away from the Central Valley and deliberately pushed out under the Golden Gate Bridge and into the Pacific Ocean, wasted forever, to the raucous applause of Luddites, misanthropes, and their powerful enablers. The later chapters of “The Decline and Fall of the United States” will make interesting reading.

Make no mistake: The rare, hard-done-by, and rightly protected manatee the Delta smelt is not. According to some estimates, there are no more than 3,000 manatees left in the United States, and, when left unchecked, human beings have had a nasty tendency to maim and kill them in the service of nothing more exalted than speedboating. By contrast, when the Great Smelt Freakout of 2007 began, there were 35,000 to well over 100,000 of the little buggers, depending on whom you ask. And yet the powers that be have seen fit to decree that no more than 305 of them may be killed in a given year. As an exasperated Harry Cline, of the Western Farm Press, put it in February 2012, last year “800,000 acre-feet of water went to waste based on the science of four buckets of minnows. That is enough water to produce crops on 200,000 acres or 10 million tons of tomatoes; 200 million boxes of lettuce; 20 million tons of grapes. You get the picture?”

The present crisis is not entirely California-based; Washington also plays a role. In December, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would have pumped water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta into Central and Southern California, but it died an unceremonious death in the Democrat-dominated Senate. If the measure had passed both chambers of Congress, President Barack Obama pledged to veto it. Why? Environmental groups feared the threat it posed to the smelt.

“That’s the tragedy of California, because of liberal environmentalists’ insistence — despite the fact that California has suffered from droughts for millennia, liberal environmentalists have prevented the building of a single new reservoir or a single new water conveyance system over decades during a period in which California’s population has doubled,” said former CEO and U.S. Senate candidate from the Golden State Carly Fiorina. “There is a man-made lack of water in California — and Washington manages the water for the farmers.”

“President Obama goes out to California a little over a year ago, calls it a tragedy of global warming and hands out money to a food bank,” she continued. “This is all about politics and policy, and it is liberal environmentalists who have brought us this tragedy.”

When asked on Monday if the White House had a plan to address the crippling drought facing California, the administration said it did not. And save for blocking any resolution to this crisis that would inevitably endanger his support from the environmental lobby, the administration doesn’t have a plan. And, yet, the Democratic Party is forever given the benefit of the doubt because their intentions, we are sanctimoniously informed, are noble.

Fiorina is right. There is a man-made component to California’s resource crisis, and it is one that has the full support of many of the state’s environmentalist residents. Our well-meaning conservationist, who bemoaned the present state of affairs over brunch while comfortably overlooking one of the planet’s most endowed natural landscapes, cannot see that reality. For her, the perennially victimized smelt are a more pressing concern than the millions driven out of a man-made paradise by man’s folly.

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