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How Environmentalists Worsened California’s Drought

The California drought was not caused by climate change, but it does reveal how climate activism can make things worse for farmers and families in one of the largest states in the union.

At the White House Correspondence Dinner, Obama introduced his “anger translator,” Keegan-Michael Key from “Key and Peele.” When the President mentioned “climate change deniers,” Key declared “California is Bone-dry! It looks like the trailer for the new ‘Mad Max’ movie.”

Key is not wrong. Victor Davis Hanson paints a sorry picture of a rather post-apocalyptic California, with people vandalizing pumps and once-fertile ground dried up, cracked, and barren. It may seem apropos to point this out as exhibit A of global warming.

Unfortunately for climate alarmists, however, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (a government agency which openly supports the man-made climate change hypothesis) admits that California’s drought is a natural phenomenon—not caused by greenhouse gas emissions. While the drought which began in 2011 has been the most severe on record, it cannot be traced back to oil companies and SUVs.

If not climate change, what did cause the drought to be so severe? Local and national figures are pointing to environmentalists themselves, who convinced the Golden State in 2007 to redirect 300 billion gallons of rainwater back to the ocean, away from farmers in the Central Valley and the San Francisco Bay—to protect an endangered fish, the Delta Smelt.

“This water is simply being washed out to sea, instead of being channeled to the people who desperately need it,” argued former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. “While they have watched this water wash out to sea, [environmentalists] have simultaneously prevented the construction of a single new reservoir or a single new water conveyance system over decades.”

“That’s why this is worse than the droughts of the 1970s and early 1990s,” argued Ryan Jacobson, executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. Bloomberg Politics reports that this year, between December 20 and January 15, about 318,000 acre-feet of water that could have supplied his region was pumped out to protect endangered species. That water would have sustained trees that now have to be bulldozed.

Joel Nelson, CEO of California Citrus Mutual (which represents growers of oranges, lemons, grapefruit, and other fruit), charged environmental activists with intentionally distorting water use statistics to demonize agriculture. Specifically, the claim that farms use 80 percent of California’s water leaves out about half the supply which is already marked for environmental protection.

California Department of Water Resources Spokesman Doug Carlson told Bloomberg that environmental use actually used up the most water from 2001-2010. While farmers used 43 percent and cities used 10 percent, 47 percent was redirected to environmental causes.

The Washington Post, even in denouncing Fiorina’s claim as misleading, reported that “a series of environmental laws and regulations went into effect in the 1970s and 1980s that affected the state’s water management policies.”

Between the 1930s and 1970s, the Post explains, Californians initiated an “aggressive water-management construction period,” when “the majority of the dams, reservoirs, and aqueducts that now exist were built.”

Environmentalists indeed contributed to the decrease of such projects, but were not the only culprit, the Post argues. The outlet also pointed to decreased federal funding and a lack of public support for such projects.

In 1973, no other than Governor Ronald Reagan passed a resolution preventing the building of a reservoir involving the Eel River to ostensibly protect the environment. In 1982, farmers and environmentalists joined together to block another major water construction project, the Peripheral Canal, which would have improved the quality and quantity of water distributed. Voters rejected this proposal, showing the lack of public support for major water projects.

Last year, however, California voters approved a $7.5 billion water bond to fund new projects. This decision may prove too little, too late, especially when the $68 billion high speed rail project ate up funds that could have built between 40 and 50 one-million-acre-foot reservoirs. These reservoirs would have been as cheap as a desalinization plant, with a much smaller carbon footprint.

While environmentalists are not solely to blame for the horrendous drought conditions, their policies spearheaded the push away from costly, yet necessary, water distribution systems.

California provides some of the most fertile soil for plants across the United States—and produces over half of the country’s vegetables, fruits, and nuts. But the state is also naturally very dry. In order to sustain the enormous population (which grew by over 10 million since the last drought in the 1990s) and vast farming infrastructure, the state has to redirect billions of gallons of water from the mountains to the farms and cities.

The Golden State’s population and farm economy would be impossible—rather, inconceivable—without massive water relocation systems: dams, irrigation, and aqueducts. Indeed, this state represents the tremendous success of human ingenuity—to bring prosperity to a dry area.

Rather than fretting about climate change and redirecting precious water to environmental initiatives, California farmers and city-dwellers should continue the work begun last year, pushing for new water infrastructure. Farmers might even be able to finance their own dams and aqueducts, unleashing the power of the free market to mitigate the worst parts of the drought.