The man-made water shortage plaguing California is usually called “man-made drought,” but this bumper-sticker description doesn’t capture the essence of the issue. It focuses us on the frightful word — drought, – evoking associations with natural, climate-induced drought. Unlike natural drought, however, man’s conscious choices about the use of water affect us 100 percent of the time — and are always subject to our discretion.
The man-made drought in California is uniquely emblematic of a shift in the political thinking of the Left toward prioritizing abstract, untested ideas about the environment over the survival of man. Few can be unaware today that in California’s San Joaquin Valley, some of the most productive agricultural land in North America has had its water turned off due to a federal judge’s ruling to protect the endangered Delta smelt. This decision has cost California’s $18 billion economy more than $1 billion in revenues and as many as 40,000 jobs. What is less widely known is that it was an FDR-era public-works project that modernized the irrigation of the San Joaquin Valley to begin with. Regularizing the delivery of water was intended to stabilize crop production, agricultural income, and jobs.
The policy of the U.S. government has thus effectively changed in the intervening decades, with the Endangered Species Act of 1973 increasingly invoked to shut down the artificial irrigation that had been made possible by earlier government projects. Significantly, however, the choice here is not between delivering water for irrigation and letting Mother Nature do as she will. The alternative use of the water is governed by human decision as well. In the case of the San Joaquin River recovery project, for example, water that had gone to agriculture since 1942 is being redirected to the San Joaquin riverbed, with the hope of restoring the river to its condition before the Friant Dam had been built.
The water being withheld out of concern for the Delta smelt, meanwhile, is sitting in reservoirs. It can’t be pumped because the pumps themselves are the menace to the two-inch smelt. Neither alternative in this case delivers a “natural” outcome; both are managed by man with deliberately chosen objectives. But the objective of protecting endangered species is particularly ill-defined and open-ended. As Congressman Devin Nunes, a Republican from the San Joaquin Valley, points out, no California fish put on the endangered-species list since 1974 has ever been removed from it. This casts doubt on the original purpose of the enterprise as well as its methodology.
Governor Schwarzenegger led an effort in 2009 to get California out of the water-infrastructure straitjacket imposed by lawsuits, but succeeded mainly in guaranteeing that state regulation of public water use be increasingly intrusive. Environmental groups are now shifting their efforts to the Santa Ana sucker, a small bait fish whose protection portends, at a minimum, irrigation losses for citrus growers east of Los Angeles. Man’s technology has advanced considerably since the ancient Sumerians irrigated their Mesopotamian fields 6,000 years ago, but his wisdom has a long way to go.