Bungling Drought Relief

Federal and state regulators have at last heeded pleas by California farmers to increase water exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley River Delta. Alas, the regulatory relief is too little, too late.

House Republicans introduced legislation in January that would have waived endangered species protections in order to ratchet up pumping at the delta during heavy inflows. When it rains in California, it pours. So it’s important to capture storm inflows when they occur. However, President Obama issued a veto threat, and Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer declared the bill dead on arrival.

Fast forward two months. Several storms have since swept the state, but regulators have continued to operate the pumps within the narrow strictures of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s 2008 biological opinion. The result, as House Republicans wrote in a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown and Mr. Obama two weeks ago, is that “over 445,000 acre-feet of water”—enough to sustain nearly a million households and irrigate 200,000 acres of land—”have been lost to the Pacific Ocean.”

The White House and governor’s office ignored their appeal to exercise regulatory flexibility as several more storms pelted northern California. While delta inflows have ranged between 15,000 and 25,000 acre-feet over the past two weeks, water exports have averaged 4,000 acre-feet. (The pumps can export up to 30,000 acre-feet per day.)

The Northern Sierras have now received 61% of normal precipitation to date (as of March 31), which is nearly twice as much as in 1976 when farmers received 25% to 40% of their water allocations. Yet farmers are still slated to get zero water this year because of fish protections. As a result, they plan to fallow 500,000 acres of land. The kicker is that no smelt have been killed and just 276 winter run salmon have been ensnared by the pumps, which is 1.1% of the legal limit.

This regulatory absurdity has even piqued the state’s other Democratic senator, Dianne Feinstein, who last Friday joined Republican members representing Central Valley districts in a letter urging Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker to “immediately take advantage of the rare, and likely the last, opportunity this year to capture and move water to bring relief to millions of Californians.”

“From our view, it is apparent that there is a significant imbalance of regulatory burdens,” the California politicians noted, since “there is clearly no imminent threat to any of the key protected fish species that is attributable to water pumping operations.”

Finally, state and federal water regulators on Tuesday announced that they would raise the rate of pumping four-fold, thus increasing water exports by 7,000 to 10,000 acre-feet per day over the next week to capture what is likely to be the last of this season’s heavy storm inflows. Alas, almost all of this additional water will go toward building up the San Luis Reservoir to prepare for the inevitable future shortages when pumping is again restricted to protect fish.

Somewhere in this tragic saga is a parable about how government imprudence in times of plenty causes greater hardship in times of scarcity.

By ALLYSIA FINLEY WSJ Opinion April 3, 2014 


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