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Backing off on environmental perfection

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POSTED May 20, 2010 2:24 a.m.

It will go down as a landmark decision.

U.S. District Judge OIiver W. Wagner ruled this week that people have rights.

That may sound a bit daffy but in the wacky world of California water politics people take second class citizen status behind fish and even vegetation.

In a nutshell, Wagner ruled that federal water officials must consider humans along with fish when it comes to divvying up how California’s most precious resource – water – is discharged or moved through the Delta. The judge also directed the federal government to stop using what he termed “guestimations” instead of precise scientific studies to determine the exact impact reduced water would have on the fish population.

The ruling pleased urban and agricultural users and disappointed fishing interests and environmentalists. The ruling could mean more water for farmers who have been devastated by three years of drought. Many have been forced to rip out orchards and take fields out of production which has had a major impact on the San Joaquin Valley economy – already dubbed the new Appalachia by the federal government poverty studies – due to the lack of water. Not only is the jobless rate pushing 30 percent in southern valley counties where agriculture is virtually the only game in town but ultimately it will mean higher food prices for all of us.

It is the first time a judge has indicated that fish aren’t the primary concern when it comes to how water is stored and transferred in California. It is a critical ruling given the fact over 70 percent of the fresh water in this state moves through the Delta.

Environmentalists have been pushing the envelope a bit too much in recent years. Instead of trying to strike a balance they have used federal edicts to make the needs of humans subservient to all fish impacted by Delta water movements.

And it just isn’t on preserving fish population.

When it was suggested after the 1997 floods that damaged over 700 structures with losses exceeding $80 million south of Manteca when the San Joaquin and Stanislaus rivers breached levees that the antidotal evidence suggested dredging the main river channel would increase the capacity of the river, environmentalists went into overdrive to swat down the proposal making it clear local interests would have a tough and expensive legal challenge.

There is little doubt the river is less navigable today than it was 30 years ago from silt build-up due in part from the run-off primarily from the Westside ag users. It was dropped like a hot potato even though dredging out an estimated seven feet of build up would go much further in being effective protection against floods than investing in super levees.

This isn’t the only place in California where the environmentalists have crossed the line from common sense in their zealous pursuit of goals. A bid to “dredge” the Los Angeles River in the 1980s to take the pressure off future flooding was met with howls of protest. They didn’t want “sand bars” touched as they were part of the environment. Considering the LA River is virtually all concrete it was a pretty lame argument but it scared people off from the solution due to the power militant environmentalists have gleaned from federal edicts and court rulings.

We need environmental protection. What we don’t need is environmental perfection.

The craziest thing about rulings on water flows for fish during periods of drought is that much of the current water is available for fish because of man altering nature.

Prior to the late 1800s, the perennial cycle in the Central Valley was flooding in the winter and spring and virtual desert-like conditions in the summer and fall.

When the Spanish explorer Juan Bautista reached the summit of Mt. Diablo on July 4, 1776 he was disappointed as all he reported seeing was “a great inland sea.” That year, the snow fall had been heavy in the Sierra and the snow melt late.

There were no levees to contain rivers so they flooded over their banks for miles.

As far as water in late summer and fall, there are numerous stories along the tributaries of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers where as late as the 1940s water was so shallow and depleted that one could walk across rivers without getting much more of your legs wet than your ankles.

There would be no water to support fish populations during droughts if it wasn’t for man’s “improvements.” At the same time, though, increased human consumption of fish has certainly put additional stress on fish that wasn’t there 140 years ago.

Environmental safeguards shouldn’t be tossed on a wholesale basis. What is needed, though, is a balance that doesn’t tip the scales overwhelmingly in favor of the environment. That doesn’t mean hammering environmental progress back into the Stone Age. A balance is needed. The federal court ruling is the first glimmer of hope that such a balance might actually be struck one day.

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