California drought threatens environmental laws

 
A "no diving" sign hangs on a bridge over the dry Kern River near Los Angeles, California. Many rivers in California are running dry during this year's historic drought

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When President Barack Obama travelled to Fresno, California on Friday, he waded into a decades-long water fight that is pitting farmers against fish. More than that, however, he is confronting a wider public policy debate that goes back at least a century - over the environment, industry, and the role of government.

While the East Coast is buried in snow and the UK is battling record flooding, California is in the midst of a historic drought. Last year it rained less than it had in any previous year since the state's founding in 1850. Rivers are flowing at record low levels, reservoirs are drier than ever, and the mountain snowpack - snow that melts over the coming months and provides water throughout the year - is only 20% of expected levels.

Start Quote

Environmentalists have decided that fish are more important than those who are unemployed”

End Quote Kevin McCarthy US Member of Congress

The issue is causing concern not just in California but across the country, which depends on the state's agricultural bounty. It also threatens the jobs of thousands of farm workers who will have neither fields to plough nor fruit to pick.

Republican lawmakers in Congress have proposed rolling back several environmental regulations and undoing years of negotiation over water issues in an effort to end what they are calling a "man-made drought".

"Environmentalists have decided that fish are more important than those who are unemployed," Representative Kevin McCarthy of California declared.

In their view, naive and idealistic environmentalists are selfishly preserving water for a largely unknown and useless fish, called the delta smelt. They are infuriated that water is being kept in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to protect an endangered fish. This water, they believe, could be used to irrigate fields and keep farm workers on the job.

This is just the latest iteration of a debate in the United States that traces its origin back to at least the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt in the early 20th Century.

On one side were conservationists such as Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the Forestry Service, who believed that nature should be managed only so far as to maximise profitability into the future. Pinchot and his contemporaries believed that nature was to be commercialised, and resources like trees were to be treated as crops.

Start Quote

We can't think of this simply as a zero-sum game”

End Quote Barack Obama US President

On the opposing side were preservationists such as John Muir, whose advocacy set aside Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Park, among other areas. They believed that nature had intrinsic worth, and that natural areas should be protected for their wilderness and aesthetic value alone.

This debate has never been resolved in the US, though it has evolved to keep up with modern concerns and political language.

Today conservatives see environmental regulation as just another example of government overreach into the sacred free markets. Some go so far as to believe that the green movement is a dark horse for socialism in the United States.

"The proper view of nature should be how do we interact with our world and use its resources in order to benefit the greatest number of humans today, and to ensure that those who come after us have the resources to live well," writes Bruce Thompson of Frontpage Magazine.

In the US, meanwhile, the left typically embraces government as a check against pollution and the destruction of natural habitats. Like preservationists of old, today's liberals view species such as the delta smelt as a reflection of the state of the environment as a whole. If the smelt are doing well in California, then California's waterways are thriving. They call for more federally protected land for use as recreation and scenic areas.

A few weeks ago, more than 100 Democrats in the House of Representatives sent an open letter to the Obama Administration urging him to protect more land using his presidential authority.

"Gateway communities throughout the country benefit from Federal conservation efforts; resources are protected, visitor experience is enhanced, and local economies are enhanced," the letter said.

In 1996 President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, used this authority to designate Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. In the process, he prohibited the extraction of more than 60 billion tonnes of coal deposits in the area.

While in California on Friday, Mr Obama said the latest Republican move, and the larger push against environmental regulation in times of crisis, lacked foresight.

"We can't think of this simply as a zero-sum game," he said. "It can't just be a matter of there's going to be less and less water so I'm going to grab more and more of a shrinking share of water. Instead what we have to do is all come together and figure out how we all are going to make sure that agricultural needs, urban needs, industrial needs, environmental and conservation concerns are all addressed."

The editors of the San Jose Mercury News write that there are no easy answers to the problems confronting California. "Unless the president has found a way to issue an executive order to make it rain," they argue, people in the state will be disappointed.

All of this is why Democrats, like Representative Mike Thompson of California, say "it would be more productive for this body to join in a rain dance" on the House Floor than to vote for the Republican bill.

 

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 22.

    Clearly, water management in Ca. need serious work: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-26124989 And while a portion of the Colorado river does end up in the Gulf there is a huge water business thriving on route putting that resource under extreme pressure!
    http://www.cbsnews.com/news/colorado-river-named-nations-most-endangered-waterway/

  • rate this
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    Comment number 21.

    Like in Africa, Water is a precious resource not to be wasted

  • rate this
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    Comment number 20.

    Illinois and Midwest had a similar drought several years ago
    I measured the cracks in our ground at 2 feet

    I remember watching a weather report in which it said in several years the drought would move out West which was correct

    So now California is experiencing what the rest of us suffered not long ago

    Best solution for Cali is desalination plants

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 19.

    Technology for improving the efficiency of water use in agricultur could make a huge difference in California but the government is going to have to step in and help farmers with the cost of procuring it, as well as making it non cost-effective to continue using water wastefully. Residential use could be cut by using native plants instead of those English style grassy lawns in suburbia.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 18.

    The real story here is probably how thin and fragile American's commitment to issues like conservation and protecting the environment really are.

    Perhaps Californians can lead the way in making some life-style changes to conserve water. I hope so -- because the fresh water problem in the United States -- and globally -- is not going away.

    Massive waste + overpopulation = disaster eventually.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 17.

    ""Environmentalists have decided that fish are more important than those who are unemployed," "

    --Put the fish on food stamps ?

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 16.

    Cheap water for agribusiness? Ruin the salmon runs and riverine ecosystems? Underpriced produce. Spend the 50 billion projected for draining Norcal water on vasectomies for Socal suburbians.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 15.

    The ´Dust Bowl´ is long forgotten.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dust_Bowl

    --As its prevention.

    Don´t worry, this time it has nothing to do with climate change or destroying the environment.

    --only natural climate variation ?

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 14.

    California is long thin state. (I live here)
    It has a huge of coastline and the entire Pacific Ocean to take water from if desalinization plants were built. They could even be solar powered, even passive solar.
    This is a nonsense argument, every year the plants are not built is simply another year of Bureaucratic Incompetence.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 13.

    The Republican lawmaker got it right. It is a man-made drought, caused by greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels. What a genius - there's a massive drought going on so lets just use more water...

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 12.

    Some numbers...80-85% of water usage in Cali is agricultural, 10% residential, the balance industrial...average Californian uses 60% of his/her water on irrigating his landscaping, as in lawn.., 85% of the water is harvested in Northern half, but 2/3 is used in the Southern half. So if they kill all the lawns in SoCal, it will make only a small dent. Time to stop feeding the delta smelt, methinks.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 11.

    8. Fracking is not a huge water consumption issue, yet: http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/02/11/us-california-fracking-politics-idUSBREA1A1V720140211 However, as more wells come on line and profits begin to materialize the 'do anything necessary' folks will quickly move into high gear!

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 10.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 9.

    Republicans seem to forget that water flows in the delta keep salmon runs alive. Salmon runs represent jobs as well. I suppose fat cat farmers in the central valley contribute a lot more to their coffers so they're interests and jobs are more important than the people who work as commercial fisherman, or in the recreational fishing industry and jobs that support those industries.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 8.

    I'm sure there are many factors involved here but lets not forget about fracking .How many frack wells are there in California ?Each well takes between 2&8 million gallons of clean water to drill.When they are finished that water is poison .Oil companies get rich ,people get screwed !!!

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 7.

    "Mr Obama said the latest Republican move, and the larger push against environmental regulation in times of crisis, lacked foresight." Republicans supported de facto slavery of undocumented Mexicans for decades in Ca. Agricultural lobbyists are legion in Washington so fait accompli on water a given at the environment's expense - its all, ultimately, about having a bud in the loop for a piece.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 6.

    For sure entering a serious drought here. The article is missing is that someone from the government in Cali sold a very considerable amount of water from North Cal. to South Cal., doing this being totally aware of the record low level of rain we had the previous year. This was clearly a political move and someone put some money in their own pockets, that should be looked into more seriously.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 5.

    Next door in Arizona, we use water, to grow crops that CAN be grown elsewhere. But California supplies food 365 days a year. In some cases, there is nowhere else the food can be grown at certain times of year. To deny the water to farmers means forcing a dietary change on the entire country. Someone has to be denied. Who is more important ? IDK. But someone's going to be upset.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 4.

    No where in this article is the fundamental cause mention: unchecked population growth in California. The land simply hasn't got the resources to deal with the massive number of people living there.

    Most of these problems are quite recent and reflect the result of unchecked liberal policies. Conservation is important, but so is having enough to eat and drink.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 3.

    2. Is the removal of a large amount of capital from all economies to those that have low tax rates because of no need for those governments to provide services to their society a better form of wealth redistribution? Second part, when that money can no longer be used by the company or individual, does the money have any value to that individual or entity other than to please their sense of commas?

 

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