California Republicans Will Use Any Excuse Other Than Climate Change To Explain Drought

Our guest blogger is Tom Kenworthy, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

There’s something about the Endangered Species Act that brings out the worst kind of demagoguery on the right. Doubly so when climate change is involved.

Ever since the battle over the Tellico Dam and the snail darter in Tennessee in the 1970’s, the right has consistently fallen back on the same old, tired, and inaccurate construct: it’s always a tiny fish (or useless bird, or obscure snail) that is destroying jobs and threatening the economy.

The latest example has been unfolding over the past few months in California, where a three-year drought is being mis-characterized as a “manmade drought” brought on by federal efforts to protect an endangered fish, the delta smelt, in compliance with a 2007 court decision. Reductions in irrigation water deliveries by state and federal water projects to protect a 3-inch fish, scream the commentators and lawmakers, are crippling agriculture in the state’s Central Valley and throwing tens of thousands of people out of work.


“Because of this little fish, up to 80,000 people are going to lose jobs,” caterwauled Sean Hannity on Fox in mid-May. “This is madness.”

There’s madness out there all right, but it has a lot more to do with degradation of the Pacific coast’s largest estuary, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, climate change, mismanagement of the state’s water resources, and the right’s inability to look at the facts than it does with protecting a small fish.

Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, punctures some of the myths surrounding the California drought in a blog posting that shows Central Valley farmers are getting lots more water than is commonly reported, that the jobs impact has been overstated, and that the smelt is not to blame.

As Gleick notes, a couple of weeks before Beck’s tirade, the head of California’s Department of Water Resources said that if the Endangered Species Act didn’t exist there would only be a five percent increase in water deliveries to farmers. “If the ESA goes away this afternoon, we still have a drought,” said Lester Snow.

The delta smelt is a handy whipping boy for the likes of Rep. Devin Nunes, who has tried to suspend the ESA to prevent what he calls a “government imposed dust bowl.” But the smelt is only a symptom of the collapse of one of America’s most important ecosystems, a collapse that has been building for decades and affects not just the smelt, but salmon, steelhead and about 750 other species of fish, birds and animals — 18 of which are designated as threatened or endangered by the state and federal governments.


“Until we address the underlying issues plaguing California’s water supply system we will see dry conditions continuing to have disproportionate impacts such as we are experiencing in the current year,” wrote Snow in a May 15 letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Among those underlying issues, noted Snow, is climate change.

In congressional testimony this spring, California’s secretary of natural resources Mike Chrisman also cited global warming as an important ingredient in the state’s current water crisis. “Climate change brings an additional layer of uncertainty to these complex water supply issues,” he said.

Rep. Nunes and others who find it convenient to blame the delta smelt might want to take a look at the recently released report on climate change impacts by the U.S. Global Change Research Program. “Over the last 50 years, there have been widespread temperature related reductions in snowpack in the West, with the larges reductions occurring in lower elevation mountains in the Northwest and California where snowfall occurs at temperatures close to the freezing point,” noted the report, which projected further snow runoff reductions in coming years. That may be the real man-made drought.

Nunes and 16 of his colleagues in California’s House delegation who complained of a “regulatory drought,” also might want to re-think their votes on the American Clean Energy and Security Act on June 26. Only one of them voted for the landmark legislation tackling climate change and energy security.

If that’s too heavy a lift, they might want to look at a recent report by the Pacific Institute, “Sustaining California Agriculture in an Uncertain Future.” It outlines how more efficient irrigation and water management practices could save up to 6 million acre-feet of water, 20 times what has been set aside for the delta smelt.