For Congress, people should rank ahead of fish

smeltCALIFORNIA Gov. Jerry Brown has just been forced to order unprecedented water restrictions on residents all over his state. Although the details have yet to be worked out, they will likely be expected to sacrifice time in the shower and loads of laundry and dishes, or else face fines.

It is difficult for Americans on the East Coast to understand, but water is a constant worry in the American West. Even so, it doesn’t often get as bad as it is now in the Golden State. California is now being hit by a true natural drought — the result of a change in Pacific weather patterns that scientists generally agree is not the result of global warming.

But what makes the natural drought so much worse than it had to be — and so much more devastating for the state’s economy — is that it was preceded by several years of a man-made environmentalist drought that had already decimated agricultural production.

Beginning in 2007, environmentalist lawsuits and federal regulations to protect a three-inch fish, the delta smelt, began making a dust bowl of some of the world’s best farmland for cash crops like pistachios, kiwi, lettuce, olives, avocados and almonds. This was going on long before other residents were asked to sacrifice for personal use, yet now the farmers — who are not subjected to the same regime of restrictions — are being scapegoated as water hogs.

In fact, environmentalists should be recognized as the water thieves they are, having not only taken massive quantities of water through litigation but also having removed them from anyone’s use by dumping them into the ocean to save a fish.

In 2009, a full year before the nation’s job market would reach its post-recession bottom, the government diverted 300 billion gallons of water away from farmers in order to help the fish. Republicans in Congress have been blocked in all of their efforts to get the water flowing again. Last year, the U.S. House passed emergency drought legislation — the San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act — that would have helped the farmers and their businesses survive the current weather situation. It was blocked in the Senate by Democrats and Obama threatened a veto.

California farmers lost their last hope of a judicial solution earlier this year, when the Supreme Court declined to take up their appeal. Tens of thousands of livelihoods depend on agriculture in the affected regions of California, from farm owners to migrant laborers. The White House’s response to the problem has been to send $60 million to California food banks. As former House Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., put it in 2012, the farmers “who normally help feed the nation” are now “forced to stand in food bank lines and receive handouts of carrots shipped from China.”

As natural, non-man-made drought conditions worsen, the White House and Democrats should reconsider their priorities. And Congress should revisit the laws — including the Endangered Species Act — that have made this situation so much worse than it has to be. People should be more important than fish, even in California.

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