If you read the press statements of Republicans such as House Speaker John Boehner, California’s drought is “man-made.”
No, the Ohio Republican whose state is on Lake Erie is not saying that the burning of coal-fired power plants in his state and elsewhere has increased carbon dioxide levels so much that Earth’s climate has warmed and contributed to a Southwest megadrought.
Boehner’s office says “this crisis poses a serious threat to the state’s agriculture and the millions of Americans who rely on it.”
Blogging on Boehner’s website, an aide also says: “The fact that this was completely avoidable makes it even more frustrating.”
Boehner’s office says the so-called man-made drought is the result of sending 3 million acre-feet of water out of California reservoirs to help endangered Delta smelt and salmon. He and House Republicans, along with a few California Democrats, want to pass a bill to reduce the amount of water farmers are forced to flush downriver, overturning a federal-state agreement and overriding state law.
I’m not taking sides in the debate over the bill, which passed the House on Thursday by a 245-176 vote, with Idaho Reps. Mike Simpson and Raul Labrador voting yes. If Congress wants to override the state of California’s water sovereignty, it must think it has that right.
But let’s get some facts straight. The reduced precipitation over the past four years clearly is the major factor in the drought, whether you believe in climate change or not. The 3 million acre-feet of flows that go to help fish is a drop in the bucket next to the effects of unregulated groundwater pumping.
In the Central Valley, groundwater pumping for agriculture has reduced aquifer levels by 125 million acre-feet since the early 20th century. Annually it depletes the aquifers by up to 2 million acre-feet, which has reduced flows in California rivers and even caused some ground to subside.
Only last year, on the day that Idaho leaders celebrated the end of their 27-year adjudication of water rights in the Snake River, did California pass a law regulating groundwater use. Those regulations will take at least 20 years to enforce.
We know better in Idaho. We might fight about numbers, but no one today argues that groundwater has no impact on surface water in Idaho.
Over the course of the past few decades, hydrologists have shown the connections between groundwater pumping and the flows of the Snake River and its tributaries — flows we all share for fish, recreation, irrigation, drinking water and hydroelectric power.
They showed that levels have dropped an average of 200,000 acre-feet annually in the Eastern Snake River Plain Aquifer, an underground reservoir the size of the great lake next to Boehner’s Ohio that stretches from eastern to south-central Idaho. Aquifer levels peaked in the 1950s, dropping since in part due to changes from flood irrigation to sprinklers — less water now seeps back into the aquifer — and to the rise in groundwater pumping for farming.
As a state, we are seeking to stabilize the aquifer by reducing that pumping and boosting the water we send to “recharge” the aquifer to about 250,000 acre-feet annually. It’s a tall order, but we’ve already started.
It’s going to be hard for California to get caught up with Idaho, when people say the problem is caused by fish, the federal government and even California Democrats such as Gov. Jerry Brown. Some California farmers still deny that groundwater and surface water are connected.
And some in Idaho still grumble about the more than 300,000 acre-feet of water that Idaho sends down the Snake River from its reservoirs to help young salmon migrate to the Pacific. But Idaho water users, the Idaho Legislature, Congress and the Nez Perce Tribe signed an agreement that has been upheld as a bedrock of Idaho water law.
Folks in the West don’t need someone from the Great Lakes who knows little about the complexities of Western water law to create man-made bogeymen to keep us from resolving our own man-made water problems.