A Bad Omen for California’s Future? Drought Declaration Suspends State’s Foremost Environmental Law

Published on February 6th, 2014

As an environmental planner in California, I prepared many Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs), Initial Studies and Negative Declarations on flood control, road and park projects under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). I knew that CEQA was the backbone of the state’s environmental conservation and management framework. It had, after all, been modeled after the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969, which has been called the Magna Carta of America’s modern environmental laws.

But CEQA even went a step or two beyond NEPA. Whereas NEPA required federal agencies to analyze and then publicly disclose the potential environmental impacts of projects they proposed, funded or licensed, CEQA mandated California agencies to avoid these impacts altogether or implement measures to minimize them, and later, to monitor these mitigation measures to see if they were actually working.

Now, because of the threat to critical water supplies posed by California’s stubborn drought, on January 17, Governor Jerry Brown declared a State of Emergency that suspends CEQA and state water quality plans with regard to actions to make water immediately available. According to the declaration, they “are suspended on the basis that strict compliance with them will prevent, hinder, or delay the mitigation of the effects of the emergency.”

Gov. Brown suspends the California Environmental Quality Act for water projects intended to cope with the drought emergency.

While Brown’s suspension of CEQA may not quite rank on a par with President Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War, it is nevertheless an action with grave implications and ominous portent for the future of California’s environment.

Why? Because population growth in California enthusiastically endorsed by this governor’s lopsided embrace of immigration en masse, legal and illegal alike, ensures that demand for water in the state will continue to grow unabated. With Brown serving as Cheerleader in Chief, California will soon pass 40 million residents on its way towards 50 and 60 million in the decades ahead.

Recently, Brown boasted: “In so many other ways, California is a pioneer. We have 25 percent of the nation’s foreign born and we are the first state in modern times to have a plurality of families of Latino origin. So it’s not surprising that California is the state where immigrants can not only dream – they can drive.” ¡Maravilloso! Just what California needs – still more cars and more drivers! Congestion is just another form of togetherness!

Even as our numbers continue to inflate like a balloon, the amount of water nature makes available for California is set to decrease substantially as a result of climate change. A clash – or is it a crash? – is approaching.

We all know what happens when push comes to shove, and when politicians frame an issue like this: Who is more important, people or fish? Indeed, certain species of fish in the San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento Delta estuary are likely to be harmed by Brown’s declaration, including American and threadfin shad, striped bass, longfin smelt and the federally threatened, state endangered Delta smelt.

Delta Smelt
More than just the Delta Smelt is at stake because of worsening
drought conditions and overpopulation in California.

According to California environmental journalist Chris Clarke, 2013 was a terrible year for numerous important estuary fish species. Clarke writes:

That bad year continues a decade-long collapse of fish populations throughout California’s largest wetland ecosystem. And a major sportfishing group says increased water diversion for urban and farm use is to blame.

Clarke adds that these population declines coincide with “record diversions from the Sacramento River and its tributaries to feed California’s increasingly thirsty aqueducts.” As a result, California’s native Chinook salmon fishery underwent an unprecedented closure in 2008 and 2009.

These beleaguered fish are California’s canary in the coal mine.

If California’s population continues to grow unchecked at Third World rates because both political parties are too cowed to confront the increasingly sacred cow of excessive immigration levels, California’s cherished landscape and unique natural resources will get thrown under the bus; it’s that simple. That’s what the suspension of CEQA implies for the future – a sign of what is to come, or the writing on the wall, for an environment that is increasingly under the gun.

And all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, or Gov. Brown and all of his technocrats, won’t be able to put Humpty Dumpty together again.

A line from the Irish poet William Butler Yeats seems apposite. California’s dilemma calls to mind his famous 1919 poem, “The Second Coming:”

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…”

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