The California Drought’s Congressional “Kangaroo Court”

The kangaroo waits for the hearing to begin.


The kangaroo listens attentively to hearing proceedings. The National Center for Public Policy Research’s Jeff Temple and Devon Carlin are seated to the kangaroo’s left.

Devon Carlin provides a report on the U.S. House Resources Committee hearing Monday — the one to which the National Center for Public Policy Research sent a “kangaroo” (actually, an undercover operative in a kangaroo suit).

By Devon Carlin:

Rural Californians are in their third year of a severe drought, but Congressional leaders seem more fixated on finding a “comprehensive” solution that accommodates endangered species and adheres to the belief in catastrophic man-made global warming than in dealing with very real human suffering.

This was our observation during a March 31 U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources hearing, titled “The California Drought: Actions by Federal and State Agencies to Address Impacts on Lands, Fisheries, and Water Users.”

According to the hearing’s initial announcement, the hearing was to feature only one panel of witnesses – one overwhelmingly comprised of federal bureaucrats.

To some, this was seen as a “kangaroo court” that would promote the global warming and endangered species gospel with little or no opposition. It seemed to lack everything but an actual kangaroo. But the National Center for Public Policy Research was more than happy to provide one!

As the overflow crowd lined up for entry into the hearing room, the National Center’s kangaroo stepped out of a nearby elevator. As participating members of Congress arrived, they certainly noticed the large, brown kangaroo. When acting Committee Chairwoman Grace Napolitano (D-CA) gaveled the hearing to order, our kangaroo was prominently seated in the audience.

As National Center Senior Fellow R.J. Smith pointed out in a press release that was handed out at the hearing:

At the height of a California drought and during a serious recession with massive unemployment in California’s Central Valley, one would hope that the Committee cared enough about agricultural workers and minorities to invite as witnesses actual unemployed farm workers from the scores of communities closing down. Let’s have an open Committee hearing and hear real people discussing the impacts on their lives from government regulations and massive job losses – instead of more government bureaucrats who are only causing the problem.

The furry, National Center-provided visual reminder – and some last-minute intervention from a bipartisan delegation of Congressmen from districts affected by the drought – helped to provide balance.

While it seemed the Committee’s leaders had already made up their minds, they and the witnesses they selected nevertheless ended up receiving an earful about the human suffering brought about by poorly-applied government regulations and what could be done to alleviate the distress.

It was originally announced that testimony would be given exclusively by the panel of representatives of government agencies. Invited agency representatives were Mary M. Glackin of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; J. William McDonald of the Bureau of Reclamation; Candy Thompson of the Farm Service Agency and California Secretary of Natural Resources Mike Chrisman. The lone critic was to be Allen Ishida, a Tulare County Supervisor and farmer.

Things changed due to the last-minute inclusion of a bipartisan panel of Congressmen representing the region worst hit by the drought. This panel was comprised of Representatives Mike Thompson (D-CA), Dennis A. Cardoza (D-CA), George Radanovich (R-CA), Devin Nunes (R-CA), Wally Herger (R-CA) and Ken Calvert (R- CA).

This new panel, unanticipated at the time the hearing was announced (and the kangaroo was called) brought much-needed balance.

All participants appeared to agree that California is in bad shape. The lack of an adequate supply of water in affected areas is putting farmers and ranchers out of work. Their crops aren’t growing and livestock are going thirsty. Employment rates in affected areas range from 20 to over 40 percent, and job losses could rise to nearly 80,000. Families are flocking to food lines. Depleted food bank pantries reflect the state’s shortage of produce. Incredible numbers of acres are left even more vulnerable to the type of brush fires that consumed more than one million acres last year. Agricultural economic losses are projected to exceed $3 billion by year-end.

What people want to know is what the government is going to do to help. The representatives of the government, and their liberal supporters among the Committee majority, seem committed to a “comprehensive” solution that protect the environment first and merely seeks to aid the afflicted human population. Conservatives, however, offered concrete plans to alleviate human suffering and increase agricultural productivity while minimizing environmental impact.

Congressmen from the affected areas – both on the Committee and on the testifying panel – noted that, despite California’s historic familiarity with natural drought conditions, the problem this time is man-made. With rainfall and snow-pack totals nearing the average when compared to recent years, neither nature nor global warming can be blamed for the water shortage.

One of the many regulatory culprits is the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The Delta Smelt, for example, is a three-inch long fish that has been declared “threatened” under the ESA. Federal water officials reallocated a substantial amount of the water supply to flow out to sea in order to help protect the Delta Smelt. In the process, it recklessly slashed water deliveries to agricultural areas of California.

The local Congressman pointed out factors in the Smelt’s population decline that are not man-made, such as larger predatory fish. Representative Tom McClintock (R-CA), who represents the region and is a member of the Committee, noted from the dais that more water diverted for the good of the Delta Smelt has not helped its recovery.

When queried, the government officials, who gave very dry presentations about “comprehensive” relief strategies, offered no precise ways to bring about an end to the human suffering in the region.

Conversely, the lawmakers whose constituents were affected and have a sense of the needs of the region proposed multiple relief plans and suggested reform of the ESA that would bring water back to residents in need and pose a minimal threat to the Delta Smelt population.

In the short history of the Obama Administration, conservatives have been cast as obstructionist and lacking ideas by their liberal counterparts. At this hearing, exactly the opposite was the case.

One proposed idea, known as the “Two-Gates” project, involves the installation of two temporary gates in the central Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. These gates would reduce the number of smelt removed from the Delta, thus permitting water export restrictions to be minimized.

Another proposal was to reform the ESA to overcome an ESA-based lawsuit that forced the Red Bluff Diversion Dam (“RBDD”) to cease operating. Prior to the lawsuit, the RBDD performed as an efficient, gravity-fed water diversion. Shutting the existing diversion down has created the need for a comparable alternative. A popular pitch for its replacement is a power-driven, screened pumping plant that would supply 150,000 acres of agricultural land with irrigation water.

These and other relief proposals were called “shovel-ready” and within the scope of projects that could be funded by the recently-passed “stimulus” bill. The committee liberals’ response? Representative George Miller (D-CA) mocked members of the Congressional panel who voted against the “stimulus.” As for human suffering at the hands of government regulation, he considered that “cherry-picking history.” He passed off any blame to a judge, whose decision set the policy.

This liberal disdain is surprising when the drought was called the “Katrina of California” by both panelists and members of the committee alike.

Near the end of the hearing, freshman Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) came right out and asked the direct and nearly rhetorical question that was surely on the minds of many in attendance: “What’s more important – people or fish?”

This post was written by Research Associate Devon Carlin. To send comments to the author, write her at [email protected]. Please state if a letter is not for publication or if you prefer that it be published anonymously.


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