Commentary: Delta Water Rules Smelt of Extremism
Oct 01, 2011
Orange County Register
SACRAMENTO – If you want to understand the fundamental things wrong with our nation and California, in particular, you ought to peruse the 140-page opinion recently issued by Judge Oliver Wanger in the "Consolidated Delta Smelt Cases." It describes many of the most frustrating elements in our society – abuses of federal authority, bureaucratic micromanagement of our lives and political zealotry masquerading as science. The case also shows the indifference to the insanity by most Americans, who wouldn't know a Delta smelt from a cod fillet.
In an ideal world, no one outside of bait stores ought to know anything about a fish often described as a tiny minnow, but it's about time that Americans start paying attention to the cynicism of an environmental movement that will use any critter to justify its main goal: stopping growth.
The case ought to be called the "Smelt v. the People" because it involves the federal government's attempt to continue diverting massive amounts of water from human uses such as farming to environmental uses. We all want to protect the environment, but in this case that means letting precious water run into the ocean through the San Francisco Bay, wasted in an arguably futile effort to reduce the salinity of the waters of the Sacramento Delta so that this smelt – actually a subspecies that might not even be endangered – might thrive. As the judge ruled, the process is based on faulty science, and some officials have acted like zealots, none of which should surprise anyone familiar with global warming and other environmental debates.
An even better title on this legal case would be "Environmentalists and the Government v. the People." Fortunately, Judge Wanger issued a hard-hitting ruling that slapped down the feds and restores some balance to the process.
As CalWatchdog reporter Wayne Lusvardi explained, "He ruled the federal government's case was too small to grant a stay – a court-ordered continuation – of the man-made 'X2' line where freshwater and ocean water currently mix in the Sacramento Delta at 74 kilometers (46 miles) from the Golden Gate Bridge, near a spot between the cities of Pittsburg and Antioch." The line is crucial – the closer it is set to the Bay, the more Delta water must be used to dilute salt rather than for farm, residential and commercial uses.
That line moves back and forth depending on rainfall. We used to understand that nature would determine such things, but these days policy-makers believe that government can move mountains – or at least change salt levels in the Delta, reverse climate changes and restore the economy with massive subsidies. I mention the latter as a reminder of how futile this whole process can be. If government can't even jump-start the economy, what hope is there it can change the natural processes of the Earth?
But the government is capable of messing up real lives in the process of trying to make grandiose changes to the ecosystem. "While farms and businesses are starved of water, more than 81 billion gallons of water have been allowed to flow out to the ocean – off-limits to human use or consumption, thanks to federal regulators' environmental extremism.
"That's enough to put 85,000 acres of farmland back into production," explained the Pacific Legal Foundation, which filed suit against the federal Delta smelt plan.
There's debate over how many jobs these water cutbacks have cost, with environmentalists insisting that the drought had more to do with the problem than the smelt regulations, but even the most conservative numbers put the job losses in the thousands. Drive up Interstate 5 on the western edge of the San Joaquin Valley, and one sees the signs of despair – the farmers who posted "Congress-created dust bowl" signs on farms gone to seed. We can argue numbers, but the smelt restrictions have certainly exacerbated a bad situation in a region where unemployment is rampant.
As Judge Wanger ruled, "There is essentially no biological evidence to support the necessity of the specific 74-kilometer requirement set to be triggered in this 'wet' water year. The agencies still 'don't get it.' They continue to believe their 'right to be mistaken' excuses precise and competent scientific analysis for actions they know will wreak havoc on California's water supply."
Furthermore, he ruled, "Federal defendants completely abdicated their responsibility to consider reasonable alternatives ... that would not only protect the [smelt], but would also minimize the adverse impact on humans and the human environment. The result is ... a one-sided, single purpose [rule] that inflicts drastic consequences on California water users, a situation [federal regulation] prohibits."
This is great news, although the government and the Natural Resources Defense Council are sure to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court. But there are so many reasons to oppose the federal smelt protections. For instance, PLF rightly criticized the government's reliance on the Interstate Commerce Clause to regulate a local fish. PLF and the judge also questioned the practicality of the rules given that there isn't much evidence they are saving the little fish.
But while the ruling documents the insanity of the current process and the thinking behind the regulators and environmental activists who drive such policy, it also offers seeds of hope. It's hard to fathom how our supposedly free and independent nation ceded so much authority to government regulators and judges. Maybe this is a reminder that Americans ought to put at least as much effort into reversing this authoritarian trend as they have into saving a tiny minnow.
Steven Greenhut is editor of www.calwatchdog.com; write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org