It’s not often we get a chance to peer into the future to see the consequences of our actions. California has given us that opportunity.
Before the rains returned to California, the news was full of dramatic stories about the drought there. Mother Jones magazine warned, “California's Drought Could Be the Worst in 500 Years.”
President Obama flew to California and called for shared sacrifice. As TIME magazine reported, “He then spent the rest of the weekend enjoying the hospitality of some of the state’s top water hogs: desert golf courses.”
The truth is the situation in California is more about water policy than water supply.
Despite President Obama’s suggestion, the drought is not linked to global warming. In fact, as the New York Times noted, “…the most recent computer projections suggest that as the world warms, California should get wetter, not drier, in the winter….”
Historically, rainfall in the state’s agricultural region fluctuates, with periods of above-average rainfall followed by periods of below average rainfall. In 1897, the Central Valley got 13.6 inches of rain, but only 4.6 inches the following year. In 1958, the region got more than 23 inches of rain; the next year, less than 8 inches. The same “feast and famine” pattern is evident throughout the 125-year record.
Because of that, state and federal officials constructed an extensive reservoir and canal system designed to withstand five years of drought. The system has been so successful it has encouraged farmers to put more arid land into production and allowed water-hungry cities to create lavish gardens and exclusive golf courses. The result: a slimmer safety margin when rain is scarce.
Then in 2007, everything changed.
In May of that year, a Federal District Court Judge ordered the state to allocate more water to protecting the Delta smelt — a three-inch fish on the Endangered Species List. Since then, tens of billions of gallons of water has been flushed down the rivers into the ocean — enough to flood three million acres of farmland a foot deep. The result? Less water held in reservoirs to use in times of drought.
According to the House Natural Resource Committee, chaired by Spokane’s Doc Hastings (R-WA), “This man-made drought cost thousands of farm workers their jobs, inflicted up to 40 percent unemployment in certain communities, and fallowed hundreds of thousands of acres of fertile farmland.”
The House recently voted 229-191 to reallocate California’s water supplies. President Obama has vowed to veto the measure.
Why should we care? Because the same thing could happen here.
Activists are waging an aggressive campaign to tear out dams on the Columbia River system to benefit salmon, even though the rivers have recently seen record-breaking fish runs.
Now, to aid the salmon, the Obama administration wants to change the Columbia River Treaty with Canada to release more water over the dams. That will reduce the amount of water held in reservoirs, which will limit water for irrigation, reduce electricity production, resulting in higher prices, and reduce our ability to prevent deadly flooding – one of the main reasons the dams were built.
The vision of free-flowing rivers is appealing – but at what cost?
If we release more water from reservoirs, how will we sustain ourselves during dry spells? What happens to the 670,000 acres of Eastern Washington farmland that depend on irrigation? What happens to the 82,000 agriculture-related jobs and $1.5 billion in wages? How will we replace the 75 percent of our electricity that is generated by hydropower?
If environmental activists and the Obama administration get their way, we will be setting ourselves up for a situation much like what California faces today – higher food prices, shortages, layoffs and economic disaster.
Don Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at TheBrunells@msn.com.