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EarthTalk: Should We Blame the California Drought on Environmentalists?

EarthTalk® is a weekly environmental column made available to our readers from the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Folsom Lake at Sunset during the California drought

Dear EarthTalk: Is California’s epic drought really the result of too much meddling by environmentalists like some conservatives have suggested?   — Betsy Martin, Butte, MT

While no one questions that California is in the midst of one of the worst droughts in recent history, the jury is still out as to why, at least according to some conservatives like former Hewlett Packard CEO and 2016 Republican Presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina.

This past April, Fiorina told talk show host Glenn Beck that California’s drought was a “man-made disaster” caused by “liberal environmentalists” who blocked the construction of appropriate reservoirs and other infrastructure that could have helped prevent the current crisis.

The vast majority of the state’s 1,400 dams and reservoirs were built more than four decades ago. According to FoxNews, environmentalists “have since stopped the construction of water storage and delivery systems through legal and political actions” while fighting “to ensure that captured water is released into streams and the ocean—rather than the water delivery system—in order to boost fish populations and dilute the salinity of the delta.”

Conservatives are particularly incensed about releasing water from the state’s control to help a small number of fish species already on the brink of extinction anyway. Priority #1 for state wildlife officials has been protection of the endangered delta smelt, a three inch long minnow that feeds on plankton and has a tough time surviving passage through the pumps of California’s existing water diversion system. Since the fish was listed as endangered in 1993, biologists have tried to maintain a friendlier environment for it by withholding fresh river runoff that would otherwise go to homes, businesses and agricultural operations across the state. The state has flushed upwards of 1.4 trillion gallons of freshwater into the ocean since 2008 to protect delta smelt from the water system pumps. But despite these herculean efforts, delta smelt look to be headed for extinction anyway.

California drought monitor-week of June 30 2015

“In California, fish and frogs and flies are really important,” said Fiorina. “California is a classic case of liberals being willing to sacrifice other people’s lives and livelihoods at the altar of their ideology.” She went on to tell MSNBC that whatever California does to address climate change at this point won’t make a bit of difference: “A single state, or single nation acting alone can make no difference at all, that’s what the scientists say,” she said. “We’re disabling our own economy and not having any impact at all on climate change.”

“Droughts are nothing new in California, but right now, 70 percent of California’s rainfall washes out to sea because liberals have prevented the construction of a single new reservoir or a single new water conveyance system over decades, during a period in which California’s population has doubled,” added Carly Fiorina. “This is the classic case of liberals being willing to sacrifice other people’s lives and livelihoods at the altar of their ideology.”

Of course, environmentalists counter that blaming them for their efforts to preserve and protect landscapes, hydrological flows and wildlife is nothing more than a smokescreen to divert attention from the real culprits in California’s current drought woes: climate change due to man-made carbon emissions and our profligate water usage habits.

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EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E – The Environmental Magazine.

Main image credit: ewoerlen, courtesy flickr

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