Before raising our glasses to toast this winter’s abundant El Niño rainfall, here’s a sobering thought: Because of deliberate efforts to protect fish by limiting water storage, about half the rain falling on California will wash into the ocean, instead of being stored for the dry, hot summer to come. As for the water now filling the state’s reservoirs, billions of gallons will be flushed down rivers and out to sea in efforts to protect fish, rather than being used to irrigate food crops or provide water for thirsty communities when the drought resumes. Lawsuits and bad policy decisions have created a situation in which the well-being of fish is seemingly valued more than our economy or quality of life. But it doesn’t need to be this way.
Despite steady population increases and a growing need for water, California has removed about 30 dams to improve fish habitat since 1979, costing the state over a hundred billion gallons in lost storage capacity. Moreover, we’ve failed to build new water storage projects to replace that lost capacity, and are now paying a high price for our short-sightedness. Had the Sites Reservoir been built in western Colusa County when first proposed in the 1980’s, it would be filled with about 650 billion gallons of water. Other stalled projects would be capturing billions of gallons of water as well.
Meanwhile, despite declining storage capacity, trillions of gallons of water have been flushed through California rivers in recent years to protect fish. In the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta alone, more than 1.4 trillion gallons of water have been redirected out to sea since 2008 in a failing effort to save the endangered Delta Smelt — water that once flowed to Central Valley farms, the San Francisco Bay area, and Southern California. Although biologists now say the smelt will soon be extinct, federal officials have announced that water will continue being flushed through the delta, despite the devastating social and economic impact on valley farms and communities, where unemployment is now twice the statewide average largely because of forced water cutbacks. As a result, nearly a million acres of the most fertile farmland in the world have been taken out of production, orchards are being bulldozed, and fields that once grew food and provided jobs lie fallow. State officials recently announced that more water will be delivered to the valley this year, but it will still be less than half of what’s needed.
California shouldn’t have to choose between fish or families. With additional water storage and responsible reform of federal environmental laws, we can protect both.
We should move forward with a plan by the Federal Bureau of Reclamation to raise the height of Shasta Dam in Northern California, which would increase water storage by 14 percent, providing enough water for about 550,000 people a year, while boosting the number of endangered salmon in the Sacramento River by allowing the regular release of cold water needed by the fish. We should also expedite construction of the Temperance Flat Dam along the San Joaquin River, expand the San Luis Reservoir, and build the Sites Reservoir, all of which would dramatically increase California’s water storage capacity, making it possible to provide water for farms, municipalities and environmental protection, while allowing us to bank water for future droughts.
These and other water storage and delivery projects have been blocked for years by environmental groups suing under the Endangered Species Act, a well-intentioned federal law that is being increasingly misused to derail energy, housing, transportation, and other infrastructure projects. The law needs to be reformed.
“We’re at the point now where almost any species cannot have its population affected by man,” says Victor Davis Hanson of Stanford’s Hoover Institution, “and that’s an impossible mission to achieve.”
The act needs to be better balanced so human and economic benefits become part of the equation when considering the merits of a particular project that could impact an obscure newt or spider. As the act is currently written, the environment is sacrosanct, and the needs of people and the economy are not considered. They should be.
Jack Stewart is a Board Member, National Alliance for Environmental Reform and former President of the California Manufacturers and Technology Association