Both sides in water war need smelt to provoke compromise

Smelt protestFeb. 27, 2013

By Wayne Lusvardi

You probably read the news headlines this past month on the Delta smelt fish with curiosity about what was really going on:

“Delta water diversions reduced to protect smelt” — Feb. 11;

“Once again, water supply cutbacks show need for new approach” — Feb. 12;

“Water supplies curtailed to protect Delta Smelt” — Feb. 13;

* “Smelt threat eases, so pumping in increased” — Feb. 15.

The smelt is a tiny minnow-like fish that lives in the mixing zone — called “X-2” — between ocean saltwater and fresh river waters in the Sacramento Delta.  It is the perfect symbolic device to fight a water war.

You may ask: Why shut down the pumps on the Delta to protect the smelt when, in 2010, a federal judge ordered that the pumping be resumed and the artificial drought ended? He found no scientific basis to shut down water shipments. Environmental agencies and organizations had asserted the smelt was endangered.

Answer: Because the smelt is a political football. And political issue that in intentionally left unresolved for many reasons. In the case of the smelt, the reasons are:

* Environmental organizations can advocate that more smelt habitat be preserved, ergo also more environmental jobs preserved.

* Water agencies can exploit the curtailments of water through the Delta as justification for higher water rates or for the need for the construction of the Delta Tunnels to bring water to Central Valley farms and Southern California cities.

* Politicians and water agencies from both Northern and Southern California may use the smelt as a political symbol to draw voters to the polls to vote for or against the Bay Delta Conservation Plan or the Delta Tunnels.

* The public may not want to pay for the total $39 billion package price to upgrade the Delta water system ($14 billion for tunnels; $11.1 billion for the proposed water bond; $10 billion for Delta habitat re-creation; $4 billion for Delta levee repairs).  So divert the public’s attention to each sub-project by using the political symbol of the Delta smelt.

* The tiny smelt is the proverbial “little guy” who is just like many voters who feel alienated and powerless to change their fate, needing government to protect it.

Proxy water war

In a proxy water war fought as a game of political football, either side can take the smelt issue and “run with it” or “try to score points.”  Sometimes issues are “fumbled.”  Other times one side may decide to “quick punt” the issue to their opposition.  Or one side “intercepts” and scores a quick “pick six.”

All the low-information voter typicall wants to know is: “Is my side — Northern or Southern California — winning?”

Can you play a game of football without a football?  And can you engage in a water war without a political football to kick back and forth?  That is why the smelt is such an important issue to both sides in California’s forever water war.

In the real life sport of fishing, lures are sold that look like the tiny smelt to attract larger fish.  So if the newspaper and Internet headlines about the Delta smelt are ambiguous, just remember that the smelt is a lure for your vote and your taxes — and beyond that, for symbolic water war for overall prosperity.

Unlike sports, both sides have to win for prosperity to come about.  The politics of extremism is a “lose-lose” proposition.  So you can root for the home team. But remember, both sides have to give up something to win in the prosperity game.  That is why wealth is more prone to be created by markets than by coercive government, where the winner takes all.

And if one side wants farmers and big cities to get half the needed water — but pay for everything so the other side gets free levee repairs, new recreational and commercial fishing amenities, new tourism venues and jobs, and the lion’s share of the construction jobs — then the game is likely to end up in a stalemate and the protracted water war will continue.

Voluntary water transfers are one way to create prosperity without a government-induced economic bubble.  Whatever the outcome of the proposed Bay Delta Conservation Plan and the Delta Tunnels, it should take a clue from private water transfers as to what works best for all.

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