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Super Tuesday: Politics of the Drought

As residents of California are all very much aware, the drought we are in right now is nothing to scoff at. Most California cities are one to two full years behind the normal rainfall levels. The drought has cost the California economy almost $2.2 billion in lost crops and jobs. California Governor Jerry Brown even declared this a state of emergency on Jan. 17 of this year. Here at Stanford, we know it’s serious because water hasn’t touched the prized fountains since winter quarter of the 2013-2014 school year.

No one is questioning the existence of the drought, but there has been no end to the blame game of who is exacerbating the problem now, and what is the best way to deal with it. The drought is, by definition, a natural disaster, but it has become politicized to the extent of inaction, just as with other partisan issues like immigration and the budget. Since the drought started, scientists have been trying to understand all the factors causing it in order to combat it. The general consensus is that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have caused the drought. In fact, Stanford scientists attribute the unnaturally dry weather to an atmospheric anomaly above the Pacific Ocean, which has been dubbed the “ridiculously resilient ridge” that is driving storms north and away from California.

Despite the scientific discoveries, politicians still have been using the drought as another political talking point for their own campaigns. Republicans are angry at what they refer to as “The Man-Made California Drought” in the agriculture-heavy Central Valley of California, whereas environmentalist Democrats are cautious of taking any action that could harm the endangered delta smelt fish that lives in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

However, this is not the type of situation that has an all-or-nothing answer. It is also not the type of situation that we can afford to wait on while both sides refuse to budge. Now more than ever, we need a commitment to getting something done through compromise.

It is not realistic or smart to continue to cut water allocations to farmers, as the Department of Agriculture has already predicted a 5-6 percent rise in fruit and vegetable prices due to the fact that farmers have had to leave almost 500,000 acres of usual crop land fallow this past year. President Obama pledged $183 million in federal funds to help with the drought management, but that is not a lasting solution. We also cannot continue to divert water from the Delta at the expense of the endangered delta smelt. What may seem like one small and insignificant species of fish contributes to the biodiversity of the whole ecosystem. It is irresponsible and foolish to knowingly contribute to the demise of a whole species in the food chain for our shortsighted goals of water waste and consumption.

Clearly, the drought necessitates moderation and saving. Stanford has taken good steps forward by putting into effect water efficiency standards on campus. However, a look at the breakdown of water consumption on campus shows that despite the emptying of the fountains and efforts to reduce student and faculty consumption, 43 percent of all lake water consumption still goes towards watering the athletic fields on campus. This is a striking mirror of water consumption throughout the whole state of California where irrigated agriculture uses about 41 percent of all water supplies in comparison to the 10 percent that goes to urban consumption.

If both the state and Stanford University do not do something to shift this dramatic and unnecessary imbalance, we will not make any progress towards creating sustainable habits during the drought and after (if) we get out of it. This is not to say that individual saving efforts like turning the tap off, only watering at night and reducing shower length are pointless — every bit helps. But these small changes still do not address the brunt of the problem.

These large changes can only happen with government action. Several groups have come together to create the Bay Delta Conservation Plan outlining steps for more high-tech environmental and water conservation methods. However, Congress is undermining this plan by refusing to compromise on the House Republicans’ proposed bill, H.R. 3964. If passed as is, the bill could potentially upend any progress with negotiations that have already been made to serve mainly the interests of the agricultural sector. Republicans must be willing to make more concessions for environmental protection and Democrats must also listen to the needs of the agricultural sector.

Every day that an agreement is not reached, water supplies continue to diminish. Without sacrifices on both sides of the aisle, California will stay mired in inaction — helpless to the fears of running out of water and the hopes for more rain to come.

Contact Aimee Trujillo at aimeet ‘at’ stanford.edu. It goes without saying that California’s current drought is terrible. Nearly 60 percent of the state (and in all Bay Area counties except Marin County) bears the highest classification of “exceptional drought,” and every corner of California is at least suffering from “moderate drought” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Every animal here in California, including us humans, has to deal with the lack of water, and unless the tarantulas know something we don’t, we could have to deal with this for years to come.

In this water emergency, our demi-socialist state and local governments here in California have been working hard to find ways to cut water use across the state. After all, the amount of water used in California rose by 1 percent as compared to previous years, after Governor Jerry Brown begged Californians to cut their water use by 20 percent. New rules punish those who wash their cars using a bare hose or over-water their lawns using non-recycled water with $500 fines, and San Francisco has even set up a hotline for all of the Gladys Kravitzes in the City to turn in their neighbors for being water-unwise.

Ultimately, those efforts focus on the here and now of the drought in ways that operate on fear: The bureaucrats who put those punishments in place need the average Californian to fear neighbors and fear the potential of penalties more than he/she loves excessive water use. But for we Stanford students, who will never actually see a $500 fine from the water district regardless of how much water we (anonymously) waste, and for the infamous “average millionaires” in this corner of the bay, for whom fines of that level probably don’t matter much, that fear really can’t work.

As such, different approaches are needed to help the people who have been hit hardest by this drought: our intrepid farmers and farm hands in the Central Valley, who, in many ways, keep the rest of our country fed. Water is everything to the agriculture of the Valley, and without water, the livelihoods of the people there also dry up.

Republicans in the House of Representatives have come up with a temporary fix that could help to make sure that the drought doesn’t become a death knell for the Central Valley while more long-term solutions can be worked out. Representative David Valadao (from Hanford, in hard-hit Kings County) introduced a bill called H.R. 3964 back in February that would divert water from the San Joaquin River to farms in the Valley. But since one of the consequences would be to keep water from the endangered delta smelt and, in doing so, nullify some of the provisions in the Endangered Species Act specifically related to the San Francisco Bay, the bill has been languishing in the Democrat-controlled Senate ever since passing the House along partisan lines.

Left-wing environmentalists see this, surprisingly, as the federal government intervening too much in order to help the Central Valley and her people, many of whom are “undocumented” immigrants working as field hands whose lives depend on the fate of farming in the Central Valley. Ironically, in many cases, the same left-wing activists decrying the slight intervention inherent in H.R. 3964 also want government to intervene more forcefully when it comes to the welfare of those same immigrants. Then again, progressives do tend to forget that the best kind of welfare is a job.

During times of even moderate plenty, the idea of further straining an endangered species would be an incredibly selfish one. When we can, we human beings should do our best to take care of the Earth and the other species we share it with — whether they be 50-foot whales or 3-inch smelt. The moral impetus that drives us to give what we can to charity and care for our fellow humans, when taken to its logical conclusion, should also impel us to act the same towards other species and the planet.

But these aren’t times of plenty. California is becoming a desert again, and that spells doom for all Californians, fish and human alike.

In considering this drought, we need to put the needs of human beings first. Certainly, all of us should continue to be as water-conscious and eco-friendly as we can in our own small corners of the state — after all, the life of a smelt, and all of the biological benefits that come along with having a more diverse food chain, are worth so much more than an extra five minutes in the shower, a dark green lawn or a fountain to hop in. But the lives and livelihoods of every person in the Central Valley are worth more still, even before considering the positive effects those lives have on the rest of the country. When we have the resources to do so, let’s take care of the smelt. For now, let’s focus more on taking care of us.

Contact Johnathan Bowes at jbowes ‘at’ stanford.edu

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