What’s the quickest way to animate a California water district manager during a panel discussion on drought? Hint: It has nothing to do with name-calling or threatening him with less water. He’s already used to that!
Hosted by the Latino Water Coalition, two separate panel discussions during the World Ag Expo helped to put a face on California’s drought by illustrating that it won’t just be farmers and ranchers suffering through the drought this time. Entire communities, farm workers and consumers will feel the full brunt of decades of poor policy decisions and court battles.
After about an hour of listening to discussions related to the politics that governs California water, and hearing from a retired federal judge on how his hands were tied by the Endangered Species Act and a Supreme Court decision related to it, one man in the audience wanted to know why California couldn’t just conserve its way out of the drought.
That nearly brought Tom Birmingham out of his seat as he scrambled for a wireless microphone.
“The farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, and this is spreading across the entire Valley, are the most efficient irrigators in the world,” Birmingham said. “To suggest that all we have to do is conserve more water to find our way out of this crisis is really misinformed.”
Kudos to Birmingham for biting his tongue and saying it nicely.
Retired federal judge Oliver Wanger led the panel discussion that, among others, featured Birmingham and a handful of water managers from Central California. According to Wanger, the crux of the problem is in the language of the ESA and how the US Supreme Court interprets it.
According to SCOTUS, Congress gave equal protection in the use of water to urban and agricultural users, and the environment. In other words, humans and wildlife habitat have equal standing under the law. As a result, judges do not have the authority to balance the hardships of human costs and economics in such cases of limited water supplies.
Only in the direst of situations where a court can determine that there is a clear and present danger to the health and safety of human beings can the court side in favor of human users of water. Wanger said that determination is difficult to make, which is one reason why millions of acre feet of water continues to flow out to sea in California rather than be used for urban and agricultural uses.
While Wanger clearly explained legal precedent, he did point out several times that the legislative branch of government does have the authority to change the laws that hogtie humans in the use and conveyance of water. Without saying it, the premise therein was that if we don’t like it, all “we the people” need to do is get our elected representatives to change the law through our constitutional process.
While Wanger is correct in theory, Dan Nelson, general manager of the San Luis & Delta Mendota Water Authority said it succinctly when he stated that California policy makers and lawmakers have “failed miserably” in addressing the state’s water issues.
More on that in my next blog.
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