The governor will soon make it official: California is experiencing a drought.
Calendar year 2013 sported the lowest rainfall in California’s recorded history, and the early weeks of the “rainy” season have brought little or no rain to much of the state. It looks like many farmers will be forgoing spring plantings, and cities are wondering how long their water supplies will hold out. If another year goes by with little rain, reservoirs will be tapped out and the state will face an even more severe crisis.
Although Mother Nature is responsible for the drought, the political spin game will soon begin with factions in the Central Valley trotting out their now-familiar drought refrain: It’s Congress and the Endangered Species Act that are creating California’s water shortage, and not Mother Nature. It’s the same pitch we heard in the last drought, in 2009, when Central Valley byways were blanketed with signs declaring: “Congress Created Dust Bowl.”
We’re overdue for an adult conversation on this important issue. Congress can’t create water, and neither can Congress’ environmental laws restrict the movement of water when – as now – Mother Nature has provided the state of California with virtually no water to work with.
These facts won’t stop the anti-Endangered Species Act crowd from using this year’s drought, as in previous droughts, to make a political case for sweeping aside water quality and species-based restrictions that can limit the movement of some water from Northern California to Southern California through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta’s giant pumps in non-drought years.
But even when there is enough water in the system to kick in regulatory constraints and reduce water exports, Congress is not the real culprit. As with the drought, it’s Mother Nature who’s to blame – again. She is scolding us for the decades-long abuse of its once-rich Delta region, including the creation of fortress islands, the massive loss of wetlands habitat, the introduction of contaminants and, most prominently, the unbridled operation of huge pumps reversing natural flow patterns in the Delta.
What was once one of the most productive ecosystems in the nation has lost its resilience and is now a shadow of its former self.
Mother Nature is sending us a clear message that even when she serves up ample supplies of rain and snow, the state’s crudely engineered system for moving it from north to south is destroying the Delta. She is saying: “Enough!”
Importantly, Californians are finally focusing on how best to address the state’s unsustainable, structural water challenges. The full menu of tools needs to be on the table, including a solid, statewide plan for water conservation, storage and groundwater management. But with two-thirds of the state’s water originating in the north and two-thirds of it being consumed in the south, California will still need to transport significant volumes of water through the Delta under any scenario.
That’s why a serious discussion is now underway about reducing or ending reliance on the Delta’s massive, disruptive pumps and creating a new, separate conveyance to move water through the Delta without perverting normal flow patterns. That’s the governor’s plan. It’s around that plan – and its alternatives – that we need to have an adult conversation.
Let’s not be diverted from the task at hand by fooling ourselves that Congress is to blame, or that Congress can deliver a silver bullet to somehow fix a badly broken system.
David J. Hayes, former deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior, teaches at Stanford. Follow him on Twitter @djhayes01.