CALIFORNIA SAW a bit of relief from its extreme drought this past weekend, when big storms dumped rain on the parched state. But it appears that California won’t be spared from another threat — Washington politicians talking foolishly about the water crisis or, worse, meddling in the state’s efforts to cope.
A week ago, Denis McDonough, President Obama’s chief of staff, sought to connect the drought to global warming. “California,” he said, “is now seeing some pretty serious developments as a result of climate change.” The White House hasn’t pushed this point since, and it has good reason not to: Scientists haven’t yet found any apparent climate change connection to this particular event.
The immediate cause of the drought is a lingering pocket of high pressure, a wall of air, sitting off the West Coast and deflecting moisture-bearing storms away from California. Before these latest storms, the state had received only 12 percent of its usual snowpack during this wet season, leaving mountains bare and reservoirs depleted, with the normally dry spring and summer looming. The high pressure relented some over the weekend, letting the storms through, but experts say it could reconstitute itself afterward and persist for a long time. Some research suggests there could be a general link between these sorts of atmospheric effects and global warming, and higher average temperatures are likely to exacerbate droughts. But in California’s case, this year’s crisis also doesn’t appear to be unprecedented in the historical record.
Republicans, meanwhile, have blamed the severity of the crisis on “man-made water problems,” pointing the finger at environmentalists who several years ago pushed for some water to go toward protecting and restoring threatened habitats in the San Joaquin Delta. On Wednesday, the GOP House passed a bill sponsored by Republicans from California’s Central Valley that would reallocate water toward agriculture and away from sustaining flows in the delta. California farmers grow half the nation’s fruit and vegetables. Current policy places fish ahead of families in this crucial sector of the state economy, Republicans contend, and they want to use the federal involvement in California water management to change that. This is not a new idea for them; they have been trying to push through this same water plan for practically as long as the policy has been in place.
In reality, says California Natural Resources Agency official Richard Stapler, the GOP plan would hinder state efforts to ensure its 60-year-old water management system will continue operating well enough to provide water to many of those, not just fish, with legitimate needs. Things are so bad that saltwater could intrude into the system if there is not enough fresh water flowing through the delta, making things worse. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) blasted the GOP effort, insisting that he and other state leaders should have the flexibility to respond to the water crisis without unwanted “help” from Washington.
We agree; federal politicians should be cautious about interfering before harmonizing their plans with Mr. Brown’s; that also goes for Democrats in Congress, who will probably hash out a compromise bill with their GOP counterparts. Mr. Brown wants to promote conservation, shore up water storage and recycling efforts, and invest in better infrastructure — all good ideas for California, an often-arid place that depends on good irrigation. Some of those measures might not provide immediate relief. Then again, only Mother Nature can really do that.