The water wars have begun.
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO and potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina is blaming "overzealous liberal environmentalists" for the water shortages caused by California's ongoing drought. In a radio interview earlier in the week with Glenn Beck, and in a Tuesday an op-ed in Time, Fiorina has made the case that the water rationing instituted by Governor Jerry Brown could have been avoided. The problem, Fiorina says, is that the state has allowed environmental activists to influence policy.
"Specifically, these policies have resulted in the diversion of more than 300 billion gallons of water away from farmers in the Central Valley and into the San Francisco Bay in order to protect the Delta smelt, an endangered fish that environmentalists have continued to champion at the expense of Californians. This water is simply being washed out to sea, instead of being channeled to the people who desperately need it," Fiorina wrote in Time. "While they have watched this water wash out to sea, liberals have simultaneously prevented the construction of a single new reservoir or a single new water conveyance system over decades."
Environmental groups staunchly disagree, saying weather patterns are to blame. "We simply don't have rain or snow pack and are suffering the worst California drought since water agencies and weather trackers started keeping records," Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club's California chapter, told the Huffington Post.
Yet many California farm groups agree with Fiorina, tracing their woes to 1992 federal legislation meant to protect endangered species and landscapes that permanently reduced their water allocation. Since then, lawsuits have further eroded farmer water rights, they say, slowly turning off the tap in the name of environmental goals that may or may not be met.
“That’s why this is worse than the droughts of the 1970s and early 1990s,” said Ryan Jacobsen, executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. This year, between Dec. 20 and Jan. 15, about 318,000 acre-feet that could have supplied his region was pumped out to protect endangered species. That water, had it been available, would have allowed for a bare-bones federal water allocation that would have kept alive trees that now will be bulldozed, he said.
“We’ve had a large rededication from ag and municipal use to the environment, and it’s been chewing away at us. It dramatically hurts the flexibility of California to deal with these circumstances.”
Activists intentionally distort agriculture’s use of water to further anti-farming arguments, said Joel Nelsen, chief executive officer of California Citrus Mutual, which represents growers of oranges, lemons, grapefruit and other fruit.
For example, an oft-quoted number that farms handle 80 percent of the state’s water use intentionally leaves out about half of the supply, the part earmarked for environmental protection, he said. Add that in, and farming uses about 40 percent of all water, he said.
The California Department of Water Resources, which tracks use, agrees. “The farmers are right,” said agency spokesman Doug Carlson. From 2001-2010, average net water use in California, counting environmental purposes, was about 47 percent environmental, 43 percent for farming and 10 percent city use. Take out environmental water as a category, however, and farming jumps to almost 77 percent of usage, with city use rising to one fifth, according to state statistics.
That’s the sort of spin Nelson said unfairly singles out farmers, who already have reduced their “crop per drop” in response to less available water, as villains in the water crisis. “What bothers me most about the environmental community is its incredible hypocrisy,” in which activists oppose everything except what makes their own lives more convenient, he said.
“They won’t go after the dam at Hetch Hetchy because that supplies water to San Francisco,” he said, referring to a century-old federal project that devastated an ecosystem to supply municipal water. “They go after agriculture because it doesn’t affect them. Well, we produce the food that people eat. That seems like a pretty good use of water to me.”
Environmental groups like Sierra Club reject the notion that the blame for the state's water conservation problem lies with the decision to not build new dams and reservoirs.
"The fact is that over half the water that falls in California is diverted for human-industrial consumption. That means that half of natural water flows get to enter the rivers and streams and estuaries that support the salmon industry and the aquifers that are actually tapped by farmers," said Michelle Myers, director of the Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter. "In this time of extreme drought, I think we need to be smarter consumers, with better irrigation techniques, while making communities more resilient by capturing storm water and actually recycling the water that they use, rather than investing outrageous sums of money on infrastructure projects like dams."