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Carly Fiorina’s claim that California’s drought is a ‘man-made’ disaster

(Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

“While California is clearly experiencing another drought, the extreme water shortages are an ongoing and man-made human tragedy — one that has been brought on by overzealous liberal environmentalists who continue to devalue the lives and livelihoods of California residents in pursuit of their own agenda. It comes down to this: Which do we think is more important, families or fish?”

— Former Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Carly Fiorina, op-ed, April 7, 2015

“It is a man-made disaster. … That’s the tragedy of California, because of liberal environmentalists’ insistence — despite the fact that California has suffered from droughts for millennia, liberal environmentalists have prevented the building of a single new reservoir or a single new water conveyance system over decades during a period in which California’s population has doubled.”

— Fiorina, radio interview, April 6, 2015

Carly Fiorina, who is weighing a 2016 presidential run, is among critics of environmental policies and regulations that affect California’s ability to store water. The state is facing a severe drought.

She is one of many critics calling the drought a “man-made” disaster or problem. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) is one of the most outspoken critics who uses this phrase.

Low rainfall and high temperatures — which also means less snow in the mountains — clearly is out of man’s control. (Note: That is, in the sense that man can’t create rain on command. Readers pointed out to us that there is scientific evidence showing the impact of climate change on current precipitation and temperature levels.) The debate comes down to whether liberal, environmental influences in the drought-prone California left the state with not enough water conveyance systems (to move and distribute water) or reservoirs (to store water) in case of ongoing dry years. This matters because California has three main sources of water: snow in the mountains, water stored in reservoirs and water pumped from underground aquifers.

How much of the current drought situation is “man-made”?

The Facts

California has a long and complex water history. Fiorina and others have focused on the early 1980s to show the increased influence of environmental groups since then. So we will focus on the analysis on the specific period around the 1980s.

There are three main uses for water in California: environmental, urban and agricultural. Water resource experts largely agree that if all the environmental needs were ignored, there would be enough water in California for urban and agricultural uses. By allocating some of the water uses to environment, there is a shortage of water for urban and agricultural uses, they say.

It is important to note that since the drought has worsened, there have been limits placed on environmental uses of water — i.e., using water solely to support ecosystems and fish.

Fiorina is correct that environmentalist groups have had an impact on California’s policies and regulations that govern water usage and storage, especially in the early 1980s and onward. She notes the state’s protection of endangered fish, and policies to divert usable water to protect the species. Her spokeswoman pointed out that many of the construction projects for reservoirs have been banned under the Endangered Species Act and other laws.

Indeed, a series of environmental laws and regulations went into effect in the 1970s and 1980s that affected the state’s water management policies. For example, the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 and the California Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1972 protected many rivers that had been identified for dam projects. The combination of the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the California Endangered Species Act of 1984 had a big role in California’s water resources systems, because a variety of native fish species were listed for protection, according to “Managing California’s Water: From Conflict to Reconciliation.”

California went through an aggressive water-management construction period between the 1930s through the late 1970s. The majority of the dams, reservoirs and aqueducts that exist now were built during that time. There were some projects between 1979 and through the late 1990s, but nowhere near as many as there were during the boom during the 1960s-1970s.

Experts and environmentalists agree that the influence of environmentalist groups led to the slowing down of major reservoirs and restricted areas where new projects can be built. But they reject the notion that it was the single villain. Decreased federal funding and lack of public support for large publicly funded projects also were contributors, said Jeffrey Mount, senior fellow with the Public Policy Institute in California and founding director of the University of California Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

One key decision in 1973 by then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan (R) designated the Eel River in the California Wild and Scenic Rivers System. The law prevented construction of a major reservoir that would have flooded water supplies, according to “Managing California’s Water.” It was one of the first projects to be blocked off through legislation. The Eel River, as well as other North Coast rivers, received federal Wild and Scenic designation under the Carter administration a decade later, further blocking any new projects. This is significant, because the North Coast has some of the last undeveloped water.

Several other reservoir projects were blocked between 1973 and 1980 as a result of pushback from environmental groups and decreased federal funds.

The symbolic end to this construction era was a voter referendum that failed in 1982. California voters rejected a proposal to build a major water conveyance system called the Peripheral Canal, a 43-mile, 500-foot wide channel that would have improved the quality and quantity of water distributed. Environmentalist groups opposed the proposal, but the major opposition — and the majority of money funding the opposition — came from California’s farmers.

In 2014, California voters approved a $7.5 billion water bond to fund new water projects that could expand the state’s ability to store water.

Some question whether increased storage space actually would have helped California prepare for current drought levels. Research from the University of California Davis and The Nature Conservancy found that building more reservoirs now would not necessarily lead to significant increases in water supply because of limits on precipitation and ability to transport water.

Fiorina said that “environmental policies had largely contributed to this situation. It certainly is not the only cause — but their policies have blocked many of the projects that would have mitigated the current drought. Obviously not every proposed water project will be right for the state for any number of reasons. But too many have been blocked because the far left put their ideology before people’s lives and livelihoods,” said her spokeswoman, Sarah Isgur Flores, in an e-mail.

The Pinocchio Test

Fiorina and other critics of environmental policies and regulations call the current California drought a “man-made” disaster driven by ideological desires. While they are correct that the influence of environmental groups — and policies that govern environmental uses of water — contributed to the current drought levels, that statement is misleading.

It is accurate that new infrastructure has not been built at levels they were before the 1980s. But that is not solely due to the influence of environmental groups or Democratic lawmakers. In fact, one landmark state legislation that established Wild and Scenic river designation in the North Coast was signed into law by then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan, who of course is a conservative icon. A combination of environmental groups, California farmers, public opinion and decreased federal funding led to the slowing down of construction in the 1980s and onward. This claim about a “man-made” disaster lacks important historical context, and simplifies a very complex issue.

Two Pinocchios

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