Republicans Are Saying Environmentalists Caused California’s Drought. Here’s Why They’re Wrong

Apr 9, 2015 by


Californian artist Ross Dickinson dramatized his home state’s eternal confrontation of nature and man by exaggerating the steep slopes of the hills and the harsh contrast between the dry red wilderness and the green cultivated land (1934).

Californian artist Ross Dickinson dramatized his home state’s eternal confrontation of nature and man by exaggerating the steep slopes of the hills and the harsh contrast between the dry red wilderness and the green cultivated land (1934).

CREDIT: flickr/ Cliff

Any way you cut it, California is in the midst of a dire drought — one that has been exacerbated by climate change. As the drought amplifies in impact and exposure — with statewide mandatory restrictions imposed for the first time last week — some would rather attribute its severity to a lack of water infrastructure, rather than the lack of rain. They would rather blame small fish than a changing climate and a growing population.

This straw man argument is not only disingenuous, it is also irresponsible. And it could set back the efforts of those focused on meeting the challenges of the state’s water stresses and climate impacts — like Governor Jerry Brown (D) and many in the state legislature — further harming all stakeholders, from Central Valley farmers to coastal residents.

Example A: Carly Fiorina, former Hewlett Packard CEO, failed 2010 GOP nominee for U.S. Senate, and friend of the fossil fuel industry. On Monday, Fiorina, who is considering a presidential bid, told Glenn Beck that the California drought is a “man-made disaster.” And by man-made she means it has been caused by “liberal environmentalists” who have prevented the state from building the appropriate reservoirs and other water infrastructure.

“In California, fish and frogs and flies are really important,” she said. ” … California is a classic case of liberals being willing to sacrifice other people’s lives and livelihoods at the altar of their ideology.”

In an interview with MSNBC that same day, Fiorina placed her comments within the context of climate change, saying that whatever California does to address climate change “won’t make a bit of difference.”

“A single state, or single nation, acting alone can make no difference at all, that’s what the scientists say,” she said. “We’re disabling our own economy and not having any impact at all on climate change.”

This is not the first time Fiorina has lambasted the state’s efforts to address the drought or climate change as exercises in economic ruin, nor is she the first one to have made the misguided argument. The House Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Rob Bishop (R-UT), holds the viewpoint that this “man-made drought” is responsible for fallowing hundreds of thousands of acres of fertile farmland in California and that much of the state’s farmland is in “danger of becoming a dust bowl unless immediate action is taken to change policies that put the needs of fish above the livelihood of people.”

Last January, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) said his area of the state has been decimated by drought due to politicians using “water as a weapon” by cutting supply off to farmers in order to better protect liberal voters.

“The elites that live in Hollywood and in San Francisco and along the coast support these radical environmental policies that cut off the infrastructure that’s been built and then Jerry Brown and others run around saying ‘oh gosh, we have to do something about this, it’s the drought and global warming,’” he said. “No, that’s nonsense you morons. It’s because you shut all the infrastructure off.”

Nunes is attacking, in part, policies surrounding the Delta smelt, a species that has been listed as threatened since 1993 under the federal Endangered Species Act and is approaching extinction. A 2008 decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service to safeguard the fish restricted the amount of water that can be pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and sent south to agricultural interests and water districts.

Both Nunes and Fiorina lamented the amount of water that the state wastes each year on ecological flows, with Fiorina saying that 70 percent of California’s rainfall “washes out to sea” every year.

Andrew Fahlund, deputy director of the California Water Foundation, disagrees with that number and with most everything Fiorina said.

“Thinking that building more reservoirs will get you out of a drought is like assuming that opening more checking accounts when you’ve lost your income will help you pay your bills,” he told ThinkProgress.

According to Fahlund, only 50 percent of water in California flows to the coast. Fahlund said that according to the Bureau of Reclamation’s own numbers, building the reservoirs that Fiorina is referring to would have only resulted in a net increase of one percent to the state’s water supplies.

“And by this year, the fourth year of a drought, that water would have been used up just like the water in most of the rest of the state’s reservoirs,” he said. Fahlund said the real reason the state hasn’t invested in more dams or pipelines is that no one wants to pay for them, most of all not taxpayers.

“Study after study shows that the three projects most cited by advocates of new infrastructure don’t pass any sort of cost-benefit test,” he said.

Most of the recent investments in water infrastructure have gone unnoticed, according to Fahlund, who said that these advances have come in the form of efficiency measures. Results of these efforts include Los Angeles using the same amount of water it used in the 1970s but with a much larger population and “agriculture growing increasingly productive and lucrative despite using the same amount of water.”

Future efficiency projects could include things like upgrading urban water infrastructure to prevent massive leaks, such as the one that occurred at the University of California, Los Angeles last year when a pipe ruptured, spewing 20 million gallons of water into the street.

Jay Famiglietti, the senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, also invoked harsh terms in response to Fiorina’s statements.

“There is zero truth to any argument that attempts to characterize the current California drought as man-made,” he told ThinkProgress via email. “All you need to do is look at up the mountains and realize that there is no snow, look at the reservoirs and see that they are nearly empty, and look at last January to see that it was the driest on record. A lack of infrastructure is not the issue when there is nothing to put in it.”

According to Famiglietti, suggesting that allocating water for environmental flows is a waste shows a lack of appreciation for the many benefits of these flows.

“Stemming environmental flows could do irreparable damage to the ecosystems that sustain us, and would be counterproductive at best,” he said. For instance, if not enough water flows into the California Delta, salt water from San Francisco Bay could intrude further into it, making it more saline and lowering the quality of the water used for drinking and agricultural purposes.

Famiglietti went on to say that while the lack of water is already “right before our eyes and is undeniable” that “climate change will create a new class of water ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’” and that we need to begin preparing now for the challenges and complexities this will present.

This dynamic can already be seen playing out in Brown’s recent executive order for local water agencies to cut usage 25 percent from 2013 levels — the first time statewide mandatory restrictions have been imposed. While Fiorina and other right-wingers make noise about the state’s preference for urban elites and ecological flows, the executive order exempts any mandatory cuts from agricultural sources.

Agricultural water use accounts for around four-fifths of the state’s human water use. The executive order addresses this impact mainly in the form of increased enforcement against “illegal diversions and waste and unreasonable use of water.” Statewide, average water use is roughly 50 percent environmental, 40 percent agricultural, and 10 percent urban, according to the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). More than half of California’s environmental water use occurs in rivers along the state’s north coast — sources that, according to PPIC, “are largely isolated from major agricultural and urban areas and cannot be used for other purposes.”

Brown defended his treatment of the state’s agriculture industry by saying that California’s farms are “providing most of the fruits and vegetables of America” and that cutting off water allocations off would displace hundreds of thousands of people.

Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis, added to the chorus saying that building more water infrastructure would not solve the crisis. According to Lund, the most impactful new storage projects as considered by the state would only offer an additional 5 to 15 percent of new storage capacity.

In conducting a study on California’s potential for future water storage, Lund found that the limitation “stems primarily from a lack of streamflow to reliably fill larger amounts of storage space.”

In one sense at least, Lund agrees with Fiorina about the human causes of the drought.

“I suppose in a way all droughts are man-made, in the sense that without human water demands, we wouldn’t usually consider these conditions to be a drought,” he told ThinkProgress.

Even if you don’t live in California, this likely includes your demands too.

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