Dumping water in the middle of a drought recovery

Low level water reservoir

What would happen if the communists took over the Sahara Desert?” William F. Buckley asked during a discussion in 1972. “Nothing for 50 years. Then there will be a shortage of sand.” That laugh line can apply to any case in which the government — even a democratic one — has long-term control of a resource.

One could ask, “What happened after the California (and federal) government controlled the state’s water resources?” The obvious Buckley-esque answer: “Well, nothing much since construction of the State Water Project began in the early 1960s. Eventually, though,California started running out of water.”

The commonly accepted explanation for the state’s water shortages is a drought. It seems obvious a lack of rain eventually will lead to insufficient supplies of water, especially for a population that now tops 38.5 million. Environmentalists say this is a crisis of population growth. Democratic leaders also blame insufficient conservation and “profiteering.”

To state officials, even a relatively rainy winter is no sign the problems will let up. The New York Times reported this week that the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which provides 30 percent of the state’s water “after it melts and flows into rivers and reservoirs,” is at 87 percent of its historical averages. That’s up from 5 percent last year. But officials say global warming will turn snow to rain and reduce the amount of accumulation in the mountains.

The solution from these water officials, legislators, and environmentalists remains the same: tougher enforcement of water-conservation rules, more state and local regulations mandating less water usage by residents and businesses, fallowing fields that grow water-intensive crops such as almonds and stepping up the battle against climate change.

Gov. Jerry Brown also wants to spend $15 billion-plus to drill two tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and bypass the aging levee system that channels Sacramento River water to the pumps. The project won’t necessarily send more water southward, but it might make the system more reliable by saving the Delta Smelt. Regulators routinely shut down the pumps at Tracy whenever one of these endangered bait fish is found in the screens.

Almost every proposal has one thing in common: giving state officials more control of water. Yes, the government built most of the system’s infrastructure, but the government has been the reason for chronic shortages ever since. Let’s look at the latest examples of what happens when bureaucrats, rather than market forces, allocate resources.

Item One: “After years of drought, Northern California has so much water that the state’s two largest reservoirs are releasing water to maintain flood-control safety,” the Sacramento Bee reported March 24. “Yet the free-flowing water remains a significant source of controversy throughout Northern California. Suburban Sacramentans wondered last month why water was being deliberately spilled out of Folsom Lake instead of stored for future use.”

The state is reluctant to ease water-conservation restrictions, even as it dumps so much water. One could be sure a private enterprise would find some profitable use for its most precious and apparently scarce resource rather than simply dumping it and letting it wash away into the ocean.

Item Two: The Oakdale Irrigation District sold up to 75,000 acre-feet of water to various water districts to meet its “obligation for swelling the river in April and May to propel young fish toward the ocean,” according to an April 4 Modesto Bee report. This is the latest in an ongoing and anger-inducing story.

Even as the drought was at its height, state and federal officials mandated massive water releases from the New Melones reservoir to help a handful of mostly hatchery-raised fish swim from the Stanislaus River toward the ocean (where they almost certainly were eaten by invasive species before getting there). It’s hard to comprehend such ideologically driven inflexibility.

“Last May … 25,000 acre feet of water was flushed out of Melones in an attempt to promote fisheries,” according to Jack Cox, chairman of the Lake Tulloch Alliance in nearby Copperopolis, in his written testimony before the district board. “The value of this water was $21 million. According to [the biology firm] Fishbio, the total number of fish pushed down the river was nine fish — at a value of $2 million-plus a fish.”

Item Three: “It looks as though the dams are coming down,” the Lost Coast Outpost reported April 4. “[H]igh-powered luminaries are coming to town … to make ‘a major announcement’ on long-running efforts to restore the Klamath, including the removal of four controversial hydropower dams along the middle stretch of the river.”

At a time when the state needs to store more water to meet the needs of its population, the feds and state are demolishing four dams. None of them provide immense water supplies, but this policy points to current priorities: environmental restoration, not providing water for farms or people.

Item Four: “San Diego’s overabundance of water during one of California’s worst droughts has reached a new, absurd level,” the Voice of San Diego reported last month. “The San Diego County Water Authority has dumped a half-billion gallons of costly drinking water into a lake near Chula Vista.” A lot of that water came from the county’s new desalination plant, meaning “water officials will now have to spend even more money to make the once-drinkable desalinated water drinkable again.”

One of the state’s driest regions has long been flush with water, a reminder that — even in the current, ridiculous system — it’s possible to have plenty of water if the bureaucrats plan ahead and (repeat slowly) build water-storage facilities.

Furthermore, while desalination is one critical piece of the state’s long-term water puzzle, the environmentalist-friendly California Coastal Commission has delayed permits for a desalination plant in Huntington Beach that’s nearly identical to the one recently opened Carlsbad. The commission’s concern? Its effect on plankton.

In what world would anyone put the needs of plankton before people or spend $2 million a pop to save a common fish? It’s the world Buckley pointed to — the one run by government, which would assure a shortage of sand if it were left in control of the Mojave.

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