January 4, 2018

Rebalancing Regulatory Policies: Bureau of Reclamation Looks to “Maximize Water Deliveries”

The farmers who make up the heart of Western Growers’ membership are astute businesspeople. They understand the old adage, “Don’t throw good money after bad.” Our members understand that in business, sometimes problems are so intractable, endeavors so futile, that no matter how much more money you sink into a project, the original investment will be lost. Sometimes it is best to simply walk away (or disc up a field, to put it in a farming context).

Likewise, when a course of public policy proves over time to be insufficient to achieve its stated objectives – and actually produces significant economic and social harm – the sensible response is to change course.

It is a history so well-known it is hardly worth repeating. During the state’s recent drought, in an effort to save endangered fish species, federal and state agencies dramatically restricted water deliveries to San Joaquin Valley farms and Southern California communities, sending millions of acre feet of water to the ocean (much of which could have been diverted and stored under the existing, stringent environmental regulations).

The result was the fallowing of hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland and loss of tens of thousands of agriculture-dependent jobs – in a region that contributes nearly $140 billion in total economic activity to the state – but did little, if anything, to restore endangered fish populations in the Delta. In fact, the most recent Delta survey found just two smelt, the lowest number ever recorded. This is in spite of coming off the wettest winter in Northern California history, which caused long periods of exceedingly high water flows into and through the Delta – the environmentalists’ prescription for recovery of the species.

Maybe we have finally reached the point where federal and state regulators can acknowledge that the solution to the Delta’s decline will not be found by myopically shunting more and more water past state and federal project pumps and out to sea. There are a host of other critical factors inhibiting the rebound of Delta smelt and salmon populations, and the estuary as a whole, such as predation, invasive species, wastewater discharges and human development. It’s time we do more than acknowledge these factors. We must stop studying them and actually start tackling them, and we must stop reflexively turning down the knobs on the water projects just because it’s easier than getting serious about other factors.

The Trump administration is now moving to rebalance water management in California, with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation proposing to “evaluate alternatives that maximize water deliveries” south of the Delta. Predictably, the Bureau’s announcement has caused great consternation among California’s environmental and regulatory communities, who vow to dig in their heels. What many of these environmentalists disregard is actually very important to managing competing priorities in any democracy: balance.

For all of the criticism directed toward Trump during his first year in office, his administration is rightfully attempting to rebalance regulatory policies that have, in their extremeness, failed to achieve their stated objectives and caused collateral human damage along the way.

Farmers in California and across the country feed the world with greater efficiency and stewardship than has ever been observed in the history of mankind. Our ability to feed millions of our brothers and sisters around the globe is unique and worthy of protection. That this administration has changed course in managing the nation’s largest irrigation project is a welcome and overdue acknowledgment that the perpetuation of failed policies serves neither the needs of our people or our ecosystems.