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We must all sacrifice for the environment

By Greg Walcher
web posted October 1, 2018

Have we become a society of people who want to regulate others, but not ourselves? We laugh at those who suddenly object to a policy that seemed perfectly OK when (they thought) it only applied to others.

We make fun of Al Gore demanding that “we” end “our” fossil fuel use, while he travels the world in private jets and SUVs. We chortle about politicians and Hollywood stars advocating gun control while surrounded by heavily armed bodyguards.

In truth, such hypocrisy is common, because the desire to control other people’s behavior is human nature, at least for many. Yet our attempts at control frequently come back to haunt us.

In Hamlet’s most famous speech, he predicted that a would-be assassin might end up being “hoist with his own petard.” A “petard” is a bomb, so Hamlet meant the bomb maker might be blown up (“hoisted” off the ground) by his own explosives.

Today that Shakespearean phrase is a common proverb describing poetic justice, another way of saying “caught in his own trap,” or “what goes around comes around.”

San Francisco officials are once again learning this, as they struggle yet again with water shortages. Several times, endangered species issues have come back to haunt some of the nation’s most unyielding environmental campaigners and their elected officials. (San Francisco is the birthplace and headquarters of the Sierra Club.)

Yet the City has never moderated its in-your-face, holier-than-thou environmentalism. When President Trump announced the U.S. exit from the Paris climate deal, San Francisco announced that it would comply with the intent anyway, by limiting local fossil fuel use.

The City has also banned plastic straws, grocery bags and Styrofoam containers. It even requires solar panels on private buildings. If something is on the environmental industry wish list, San Francisco is leading the way.

But when the same activists insist on leaving more water in the rivers, to protect salmon, they mean water from Central Valley farmers – not their own water. Up to now, state regulators have obliged, and water restrictions have been imposed on farms to the south for 25 years.

Hundreds of billions of gallons of water previously used for irrigation have been flushed to the ocean, rather than sent through the California Aqueduct to the Central Valley, supposedly to protect salmon migration and spawning. Nevertheless, area salmon remain endangered.

So now the California Water Resources Control Board proposes further restrictions, this time including water that is part of San Francisco’s municipal supply.

Public hearings are generating numerous angry responses. That’s hardly surprising, since the plan would double the flow of water in the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced Rivers, leaving more water for salmon, but less for the City – a lot less.

In fact, it could mean an annual reduction of 300,000 to 675,000 acre-feet of water for the Bay Area. In everyday household terms, that’s 98 billion to 220 billion gallons per year! Imagine how many baths, showers, laundry and dishwasher loads, lawn waterings and restaurant glasses of water that would mean.

Imagine how many almonds, walnuts, tomatoes, grapes, olives, apricots and peaches, how much cotton and rice, how much milk and cheese would not be produced in the Central Valley, if that much additional water is taken from farmers. 

While San Francisco’s water supply has been mired in controversy for a century, today the city has some of the purest water in the nation. That’s because its water comes from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir in Yosemite National Park.

The losing battle against building that dam and reservoir was a defining battle cry of Sierra Club founder John Muir, who vigorously opposed it. The dam was built anyway, and since the 1920s it has delivered Tuolumne River water to San Francisco, and to farms near Modesto.

But San Francisco’s water rights are junior to the agricultural rights, so the City could actually face the largest reductions.

Golden Gate City leaders, their environmentalist allies and normally ultra-green citizens are outraged. They never intended that water reductions they so strongly support would have any effect on themselves.

Meanwhile, a local group called “Restore Hetch Hetchy” advocates tearing down the dam. In 2012 it got an initiative on the local ballot for that very purpose. But San Francisco voters voted it down. They support tearing down other people’s reservoirs, not their own.

The opponents then went to court, and have been there ever since. Ironically, they’re fighting the City itself, which argues that the legality of Hetch Hetchy is “settled,” and that the reservoir’s water supply is now indispensable.

Adding still more to the petard-like irony, the reservoir doesn’t just supply water to 2.7 million residents and businesses in more a dozen Bay Area communities. It also generates significant hydroelectric power, which is vital for a city and state that have vowed to end all electricity generation from nuclear, coal and natural gas facilities.

Suddenly, the once vital salmon somehow seem less important to City leaders.

Their alternative is (predictably) to have the State spend vastly more on “river restoration,” including killing competing fish. But even if that helps the salmon, it won’t satisfy the environmental industry, which still wants more water restrictions.

Perhaps water leaders across the West can be forgiven for thinking, “Welcome to our world,” if San Francisco is being hoist with its own petard. It is a world the Golden Gate City helped create. ESR

Greg Walcher is president of the Natural Resources Group, author of Smoking Them Out: The Theft of the Environment and How to Take it Back, and a former head of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.

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