Guest Opinion By Tom McClintock

Given on February 27, 2013 12:07 PM to the Association of California Water Agencies at the Russell Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C.

Water – particularly in California – has become such a complicated tangle of competing interests and ideological agendas that I think we have lost sight of some self-evident truths.

Self-Evident Truth #1: More water is better than less water.  Can we agree on this first point?   I know I’m stating the obvious – but I keep hearing, that, “no, conservation is the key to the future because conservation lessens demand.”    That may be true, but ultimately conservation is the management of shortage and abundance is better.

Some say that in many cases conservation is the least expensive way of adding supply.  But that’s the point: it doesn’t ADD supply.  And IF conservation is the least expensive way of managing shortage, it doesn’t need to be mandated, does it?

The point at which conservation becomes economically preferable is the point when a water user decides he can save money doing it.  The more expensive the water, the more expensive is the alternative he’s willing to employ.

Which brings us to Self-Evident Truth #2: Cheaper water is better than more expensive water.  If we agree on this, then it naturally follows that before we employ more expensive sources of water like desalination and recycling, we should first be sure we’ve exhausted the less expensive alternatives, like surface water storage.

Self-Evident Truth #3: Water is unevenly distributed over both time and distance.  So if we want to have plenty of water in dry periods we have to store it in wet ones, and if we want to have plenty of water in dry regions we have to move it from wet ones.    That is why we build dams and aqueducts and canals.

Which brings us to Self-Evident Truth #4: that we don’t need to build dams, aqueducts and reservoirs if our goal is to let our water run into the ocean.  Water tends to run downhill very well on its own and doesn’t need our help to do so.  The reason that we build dams, aqueducts, and reservoirs is so that the water DOESN’T run into the ocean, but rather is retained and distributed where it will do the most good.

We can tell where it does the most good by its relative value, which brings us to Self-Evident Truth #5:  Water is valuable, which allows the market to assign a price to it that can account for its scarcity, availability, storage, transportation, demand and substitution costs, including conservation.

Do I have everybody so far?

If so, then an important question arises: if these truths are valid and self-evident, then why aren’t we proceeding with a water policy that is in concert with them?

During my time chairing the Water and Power Sub-committee, I have heard only two reasons to ignore these truths.

The first is environmental.  It is argued that dams and reservoirs, pumps and aqueducts are detrimental to the environment – that they destroy sensitive habitats and drive the species that depend on them to extinction.

These are, of course, valid concerns.  But the question they raise is one of rational balance.  I submit to you that it does not constitute rational balance not only to oppose all new dams, but to insist on tearing down existing ones.  That movement long ago crossed the boundary between self-evident truth and self-delusional ideological extremism.

The fact is that a properly maintained system of dams tames the environmentally devastating cycle of floods and droughts that plagued riparian habitats since time began.  Species went extinct quite regularly long before mankind intervened in these water systems, precisely because of the brutal, unforgiving and catastrophic vicissitudes of Mother Nature.

Indeed, our water projects have protected habitats from the extremes of being washed away in flood years or being baked dry in droughts.  They assured dependable year-round water flows in wet AND dry years, while their clean hydro-electric generation supplanted countless billions of tons of fossil fuel emissions.

Of course, there is no denying that these projects disrupt fish migrations, make upstream spawning grounds inaccessible, and kill a small percentage of the populations that are drawn into pumps.

For this reason, the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws were passed to assure that water projects do not adversely affect native fish populations.  Fair enough.  Our objective SHOULD be large and thriving populations of every native species.

But if that is our objective, why can’t it be achieved through captive breeding programs like fish hatcheries?

One of the most extreme movements I have observed lately is an effort to destroy four perfectly good hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River at the cost of a half-billion dollars of public funds and countless millions of dollars of higher rate-payer bills, all in the name of saving the salmon.

When I first visited the region, I was told the Salmon population on the Klamath was down to just a few hundred.  When I asked, “Well, why doesn’t somebody build a fish hatchery,” I was informed that somebody DID build a hatchery at the Iron Gate Dam.  It produces 5 million salmon smolts each year, 17,000 of which return annually as fully grown adults to spawn.  But they are not included in the population count.

And to add insult to insanity, when they destroy the Iron Gate Dam, the Iron Gate Fish Hatchery goes with it – and then there is a catastrophic decline in the Salmon population on the Klamath.

We’re told that hatchery fish aren’t the same as fish born in the wild.

Really?  The only difference between a fish born in a hatchery and a fish born in the wild is the difference between a baby born in a hospital and a baby born at home.  The same genetic variables are at work in the breeding and the same laws of natural selection are at work when they are released to the wild.  And except for the markings on the hatchery fish, there is no way to tell them apart genetically or any other way.

I have come to believe that the single greatest impediment to economically, efficiently and rapidly meeting the water needs of our generation is the irrational exclusion of captive breeding programs for meeting the requirements of the Endangered Species Act.

Fish hatcheries are often a fraction of the cost of the immensely expensive water diversions and engineering costs imposed under the ESA and would bring back within financial reach the projects essential to meeting the water needs of this generation and the next.

This year, I expect that we will develop and move such a bill, allowing water projects to incorporate fish hatcheries as mitigation measures to meet ESA compliance.

The second reason I hear for ignoring these self-evident truths is financing.  In an era of limited governmental resources and a stagnant economy, financing major water projects just isn’t feasible, or so I’m told.

Yet IF a project is financially viable, why would financing be an issue?  If, for example, a reservoir can pay for itself over time from the water and electricity purchased by consumers, from the increased property values produced by flood control features, and from the fees paid by concessionaires and tourists who benefit from the recreational resources the facility produces – why would financing be a problem?  As you well know, this is the principle method of financing the great dams and water projects of the 20th Century – including the California State Water Project.

Indeed, the State Water Project was financed largely with self-liquidating bonds redeemed by water users in proportion to their water use.  Projects like the Hoover Dam, financed under the “beneficiary pays” principle, not only redeem their capital costs but continue to pay dividends to ratepayers and taxpayers into the future.

It is only when a project is NOT financially viable that financing becomes an issue.  Such projects rely on massive taxpayer subsidies to hide from consumers the true cost of the water they are using – and that’s a recipe for waste.  Without accurate price signals of how much the water actually costs, consumers have no rational way of measuring how much they actually need. 

For example, instead of consumers making rational decisions as to what extent to substitute conservation measures for water, conservation measures are instead imposed by edict – a most burdensome, meddlesome, uneconomical and inefficient alternative.

For these reasons, I believe the two most important contributions the Sub Committee on Water and Power can make to federal water policy this session will be to restore rational policies that allow hatcheries to assure abundance of all species to meet the objective of the Endangered Species Act, and to restore the “beneficiary pays” principle of finance that produced our greatest water projects.

No two single reforms can move us closer or faster toward realigning our water policy with the five self-evident truths that can be summed up in a single word: abundance.

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