California water wars: Man vs. fish (and the fish are winning)

“If You Give A Mouse a Cookie”… well, you know what happens.  Chaos.

It reminds me of what happens when you give a little power to a federal agency.  It’ll run amuck and do its best to ruin lives and livelihoods. 

Take the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which was given a little power under the Endangered Species Act.  It decided a three-inch translucent fish called the Delta smelt needed protecting.  So the agency went about inflicting economic and agricultural disaster by shutting off the water valves to some 25 million Californians.


Some of the most fertile farmland in the world began to dry up.  The nation’s bread basket, the San Joaquin Valley, evolved into a veritable “dust bowl” evocative of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”.  Thousands of jobs were lost, and billions in agricultural revenue vanished.  Food prices rose.  Thirsty residents of central and southern California were deprived of their main drinking and household water source.  The prospect of water rationing is now quite real.

Where did all the water go?  This is the truly stupefying part of the story. It was diverted away from the people who need it, and emptied into the Pacific Ocean. Call me crazy, but wasting a precious resource like fresh water is not only irrational, it’s insane. Which, I realize, is endemic in government. 

There is plenty of water for both people and crops, mind you. Over the decades, the state has constructed an elaborate and ingenious complex of dams, reservoirs, canals and aqueducts.Water flows from the mountains into a vast delta controlled by dykes and levees.  From there, the water is both stored and distributed.  Two-thirds of Californians get their water from this source.  Moreover, water spinning turbines provide abundant electricity for the state.  It is a system that has worked superbly since the early 1900’s. 

Enter environmentalists and government regulators –a dangerous combination, to be sure.  Armed with dubious evidence, they determined that the pumping stations which push the water were harming the smelt population.  Forget that the pumps have been running for more than half a century and the tiny minnows are still around.  Forget that shutting down the pumps spells economic and human catastrophe for tens of millions of people who subsist on this water.  The Fish and Wildlife Service forced the water supply to be cut off. 

During a trip to California recently, I was able to see for myself some of the devastated farmland.  What were once rich fields of fruit, vegetables, grain and other agriculture products is now dry, fallowed land.  The hardship on the affected communities has depressed the state’s economy.

People are starving for water.  The same water which is being dumped recklessly into the sea.  Think of parched people stranded on a boat while the captain jettisons potable water overboard.  Mutiny?  You bet. 

But wait, President Obama to the rescue.  During a visit to California he pronounced a bold and novel solution.  A government bailout.  Naturally.

He wants to throw around $ 160 million dollars of taxpayer money to help out thirsty residents.  That, of course, is his solution for everything.  Toss money at a problem.  No real plan.  No long-term strategy.  Just give money to farmers who can’t farm their withered land.

“It’s a Band-Aid solution –a sop to deflect attention from the real issues”, lawyer Damian Schiff of the Pacific Legal Foundation told me.  As counsel for farmers, he has filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to intervene.

I grew up in California. It is an arid climate. Droughts are common and cyclical. But residents survived and flourished thanks to the brilliant water systems devised over the course of a century.  That is, until environmentalists started whining about the smelt.  Their lawsuits, together with the actions of the Fish and Wildlife Service, have given a tiny bait fish supremacy over humans.  It’s man versus fish.  And the fish are winning. 

Those who blame man-made global warming for California’s current water woes are beyond naïve.  It’s a man-made calamity, all right, caused by the men and women at a federal agency who seem to care more about minnows than the health and welfare of the people they serve.  They have also conveniently misread or misinterpreted the law. 

The Endangered Species Act does not give the government unfettered power to protect species, whatever the cost.  The human and economic impact on society must be always be weighed.  But the feds seem to have glossed over that part.

Congress specifically wrote such a protection into the law so as to avoid the kind of disastrous consequences Californians are now experiencing.  Congress knew that if you give a federal agency vast power, with no constraints, it would pursue its agenda zealously and unintelligently. 

“If You Give A Moose a Muffin”… well, you know.