Why is “The Environment” not on the ballot?


In the October 13th edition HCN reviewed western ballot measures. This year there apparently are only a few “environmental” measures on western ballots and at least one of these – the California initiative on “green measures” – is actually anti-environmental.  I don’t know about you but I find this troubling. In a national election year in which Democrats are expected to do exceptionally well in the West, one would expect green groups to try moving their agendas forward via the initiative process.

In my state of California, for example, streams are going dry – or are already dry much of the year – largely as a result of the fact that groundwater is unregulated. That’s right folks, with the exception of a few counties which have put in place ordinances to forestall massive extraction of groundwater for export – anyone can stick a straw into the ground anywhere in the Golden State and pump as much water as she wishes.

And there are plans afoot to do just that. For example, irrigation districts and individual farmers on the California side of the Upper Klamath River Basin have used state drought assistance and Farm Bill EQIP funding to sink wells deep into the aquifer. Access to unregulated groundwater gives these farmers an alternative irrigation source should surface supplies once again be cut off as took place in 2001 when water was temporarily reallocated for threatened and endangered fish. But the farmers have also been selling water to a Bureau of Reclamation water bank. In fact, they have been selling so much groundwater that the US Geological Service says the pumping is not sustainable. Nevertheless these same irrigators plan to continue selling groundwater. A proposed Water Deal negotiated with agencies and some fishing and environmental groups would rely on sale and purchase of groundwater to provide for Klamath River flows during drought years. Some fish advocates say that the government purchasing water to meet fisheries needs is unsustainable and a threat to the Public Trust Doctrine. Others fear that these same farmers will someday sell extracted groundwater to thirsty Southern California.


The environmental and economic harm already associated with groundwater pumping in the Golden State is large. Groundwater is often interconnected with surface flow and groundwater pumping is typically implicated in stream flow reduction and stream dewatering.  Dewatering and depleted stream flows in turn are implicated in the loss of ecologically and economically valuable salmon and other fisheries.  And while the current harm is very significant, the potential for future harm if unregulated groundwater pumping continues is huge.

So why hasn’t California’s powerful environmental establishment sought to bring groundwater pumping under government regulation via the initiative process? It’s a good question and one for which I do not have an answer. But I can speculate.

California’s environmental establishment appears to have become more interested in making deals with the purveyors of environmental harm than in forcing those perpetrating the harm to cease the destruction. For example, in the wine country north of San Francisco stream flow is decreasing at an alarming rate. Groundwater pumping is implicated along with illegal surface diversions and the rapidly expanding wine industry is known to be the main culprit. Yet the environmental and fishing group Trout Unlimited recently accepted over a million dollars in state funding to “form partnerships” with the wine industry.  Trout Unlimited is unlikely to support limits on groundwater pumping which would surely be seen as a threat to its new wine industry partners.

Trout Unlimited is calling its lucrative new partnership with the wine industry the Water and Wine coalition. There is no word yet whether any Christian groups plan to sign on.

In California the environmental establishment has become much too cozy with the purveyors of environmental destruction. Perhaps they are not putting strong environmental measures on the ballot as a result.

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