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Dealing with Drought

California is dry. Really dry. Historically dry. Life-alteringly dry. Dry enough to bring out the political extremists, as if they had crawled up through those cracks in the ground.

California Drought Dry Riverbed 2009

The right-wing CNS News blames the EPA for the drought:

But for months, Republican Assemblywoman Shannon Grove -- who represents part of Kern County, the second largest agricultural sector in the country – has been trying to get the word out about how Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations apparently are literally draining water into the sea all for the sake of a three-inch fish.

Before we go any further, I want to interject that Endangered Species Act regulations are not administered by the EPA. In this case they come from the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also has the authority to impose such regulations. Carry on, CNS.

"All in all, California farmers fallowed about 500,000 acres of land this year," the Wall Street Journal reported in June 2014. "But here's the thing: much of this land could have been productive had the state stored up more water from wet years and not flushed 800,000 acre-feet into the San Francisco Bay last winter and an additional 445,000 acre-feet this spring to safeguard the endangered delta smelt."

The great tragedy here is that all that water may have gone to a lost cause: The most recent survey of the Sacramento-San Juaquin Delta turned up just six delta smelt. Their extinction is almost inevitable.

But judging from the CNS article, the fish are really a side issue. The main goal is pinning the blame on government regulations. The article quotes California farmer Larry Starrh on the history of California droughts.

"Today’s drought I think is more politically driven than weather-related," Starrh said, and added that he doesn’t remember these kinds of problems until Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973.

"Until that happened we were fine," Starrh said. "We got through all our droughts with no issues."

So you abolish the ESA, and the drought will go away. With a little tweaking it might make a catchy slogan, but it's not that simple in practice.

The state—the nation, for that matter—did, in fact, have severe droughts before the Endangered Species Act was passed. The "dust bowl" drought of the 1930s uprooted 2.5 million people from midwestern states. Of those, about 200,000 settled in California. It wasn't even California's drought, and the state had to deal with serious economic repercussions. American farmers have also dealt with multiyear droughts nearly every decade for almost a century, and have been forced to adapt their irrigation practices more than once—all before the Endangered Species Act was even a gleam in Richard Nixon's eye.

Meanwhile, from the left we learn that California could save billions of gallons of water a year by replacing all of its coal and natural gas plants with wind power. Brian Merchant of explains that, although residential water use is subject to restrictions,

Agriculture, which consumes ​a far larger share of the state’s water resources, will be left mostly alone. And so will one of California’s least-known water sucks: its fossil-fueled energy supply.

The Golden State gets over half of its power from coal and natural gas plants—both of which are serious water drains.

Merchant quotes Michael Goggin of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), who claims,

Replacing all of California’s remaining fossil generation with wind energy would cut water consumption by around 20 billion gallons annually, or roughly 45 days’ worth of the savings provided by the household water use restrictions announced yesterday by Governor Jerry Brown.

In summary, the American Wind Energy Association says we should build more wind farms. That's not news, that's an advertisement.

And how much water would it save? According to Goggin, "roughly 45 days' worth," or about 12% of the projected annual savings of Governor Brown's restrictions. It might help if it's added on top of the restrictions, but on its own the AWEA plan doesn't go very far.

And how does it compare with the smelt water? According to the Wall Street Journal above, the state flushed 800,000 acre-feet last winter and another 445,000 this spring. An acre-foot is approximately 325,000 gallons of water, so we're talking somewhere on the scale of 400 billion gallons. That's 20 times the savings of the AWEA plan. To put it another way, if you averaged it out, more water would be flushed into San Francisco bay every month than conversion to wind power would recover in a year.

Look, I'm all for renewable energy. It has many benefits beyond water savings. Ultimately, we do need to shut down all fossil fuel power plants, and get all of our energy from renewable sources. But if conversion can't be sold on its merits alone, there's no need to resort to cheap propaganda during a time of crisis.

Politicians of all stripes need to recognize that when water is scarce, all options must remain on the table. They need to be willing to give up their pet projects for the greater good. At the same time, it couldn't hurt if they were a little less willing to use water policy as a partisan tool, to use a crisis to try to eliminate or change policies they don't like. This is why Americans hate politics.

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