Washington View: California may give glimpse of our future

It’s not often we get a chance to peer into the future to see the consequences of our actions. California has given us that opportunity.

Before the rains returned to California, the news was full of dramatic stories about the drought there. Mother Jones magazine warned, “California’s Drought Could Be the Worst in 500 Years.” Hopefully, in the coming weeks, enough snow will accumulate in the state’s mountains to avert the water crisis.

President Barack Obama flew to California and called for shared sacrifice. Despite his suggestion, the drought is not as much linked to global warming as the water shortages are to water policy. In fact, as the New York Times noted, “the most recent computer projections suggest that as the world warms, California should get wetter, not drier, in the winter.”

Historically, rainfall in the state’s agricultural region fluctuates, with periods of above-average rainfall followed by periods of below average rainfall. In 1897, the Central Valley got 13.6 inches of rain, but only 4.6 inches the following year. In 1958, the region got more than 23 inches of rain; the next year, less than 8 inches. The same “feast and famine” pattern is evident throughout the 125 year record.

Because of that, state and federal officials constructed an extensive reservoir and canal system designed to withstand five years of drought. The system has been so successful it has encouraged farmers to put more arid land into production and allowed water-hungry cities to expand and grow with parks, gardens and golf courses. The result: a slimmer safety margin when rain is scarce.

Then in 2007, everything changed.

In May of that year, a Federal District Court judge ordered the state to allocate more water to protect the Delta smelt — a 3-inch fish on the Endangered Species List. Since then, tens of billions of gallons of water has been flushed down the rivers into the ocean — enough to flood 3 million acres of farmland a foot deep. The result? Less water held in reservoirs to use in times of drought.

According to the House Natural Resource Committee, chaired by Pasco’s Doc Hastings, R-Wash., “This man-made drought cost thousands of farmworkers their jobs, inflicted up to 40 percent unemployment in certain communities, and fallowed hundreds of thousands of acres of fertile farmland.”

The House recently voted 229-191 to reallocate California’s water supplies. Obama has vowed to veto the measure.

Why should we care? Because the same thing could happen here.

Activists are waging an aggressive campaign to tear out dams on the Columbia River system and return the river to its natural flow.

The administration wants to change the Columbia River Treaty with Canada to release more water over the dams. That will reduce the amount held in reservoirs, which will limit water for irrigation and reduce electricity production, resulting in higher prices for food and power and reducing our ability to prevent deadly floods — one of the main reasons the dams were built.

The vision of free-flowing rivers may be appealing — but at what cost?

If we release more water from reservoirs, how will we sustain ourselves during dry spells? What happens to the 670,000 acres of Eastern Washington farmland that depend on irrigation? What happens to the 82,000 agriculture-related jobs and $1.5 billion in wages? How will we replace the 75 percent of our electricity that is generated by hydropower?

If environmental activists and the Obama administration get their way, we will be setting ourselves up for a situation much like California faces today — higher food prices, shortages, layoffs, flooding and economic disaster.

Don Brunell, retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, is a business analyst, writer, and columnist. He lives in Vancouver and can be contacted at TheBrunells@msn.com.


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