OPINION
California Drains Reservoirs in the Middle of a Drought
The state desperately needs water, yet federal policy sends huge ‘pulse flows’ into the Pacific to benefit fish.

By TOM MCCLINTOCK
May 23, 2014 6:52 p.m. ET
One of the worst droughts in California’s history has devastated more than a half-million acres of the most fertile farmland in America. In communities like Sacramento, “water police” go from door to door to enforce conservation measures. There’s even a mobile “app” to report neighbors to city authorities so they can be fined for wasting water.

With the Sierra snowpack at 4% of normal as of May 20, Californians will desperately need what little water remains behind its dams this summer. Authorities have warned some towns like Folsom—home of Folsom Lake—to expect daily rationing of 50 gallons per person, a 60% cut from average household usage.

Yet last month the Bureau of Reclamation drained Folsom and other reservoirs on the American and Stanislaus rivers of more than 70,000 acre feet of water—enough to meet the annual needs of a city of half a million people—for the comfort and convenience of fish.

Government officials who are entrusted with the careful management of our water squandered it in less than three weeks to nudge baby salmon toward the Pacific Ocean (to which they swim anyway) and to keep the river at just the right temperature for the fish by flushing the colder water stored in the reservoirs.

These water releases are so enormous they are called “pulse flows.” They generate such swift currents that local officials issue safety advisories to exercise extreme caution when on or near the rivers. While some of the water can be recaptured downstream, most is lost to the ocean.

In January pictures of a near-empty Folsom Lake on the American River made national news. Yet on April 21 the Bureau of Reclamation more than tripled water releases from the dams on that river from 500 cubic feet per second to more than 1,500 cubic feet per second for three days—sending more than 7,000 acre feet of water toward the ocean. Elevated releases have continued for “temperature control.” On April 14 a 16-day pulse flow drained nearly 63,000 acre feet of water from dams on the Stanislaus River.

Unrealistic laws like the Endangered Species Act administered by ideologically driven officials have now crossed from good intentions to dangerous policy, and the folly cries out for fundamental reforms.

The House twice has passed such reforms, most recently in February. HR 3964 would pave the way for hundreds of thousands of acre feet of new water storage across California and promote fish hatcheries and predator control as simple and inexpensive alternatives to protect endangered species. Sadly, it remains bottled up in the Senate.

An administration that has never been shy about asserting executive powers has the authority to stop these releases through provisions in the Endangered Species Act that allow a committee of officials to suspend them. It has failed to do so.

While homeowners parch their gardens and clog their showerheads with flow restrictors to save a few extra gallons of water, their government thought nothing of wasting 23 billion gallons to lower river water temperatures by a few degrees.

The frivolous and extravagant water releases from our dams last month mock the sacrifices that our citizens make every day to stretch supplies in this crisis. In turn, they undermine the government’s credibility and moral authority to call for stringent conservation and hardship by the people.

California’s chronic water shortages won’t be solved without additional storage. Despite an abundance of suitable and affordable sites, opposition from environmentalists and the laws they have wrought have delayed these projects indefinitely and made them prohibitively costly.

Until unrealistic laws like the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act are balanced to accommodate a new era of dam construction, our state and federal governments have a responsibility to manage our increasingly scarce water supply as carefully as we ask our citizens to do.

Perhaps, at least, the public can draw from this tragic waste a lesson in how unreasonable our environmental regulations have become, and how out of touch are the policy makers responsible for them.

Mr. McClintock, a Republican, is a U.S. congressman from California.

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