As California’s drought stretches into its fourth year, the right’s finger-pointing has taken a ridiculous turn. Conservatives have placed most of the blame on the blue state’s politics; they blame it on God’s retribution for state laws on abortion and gay marriage. Sometimes it’s immigrants’ fault. The rest of the time, they point to environmentalists trying to save animals from extinction. There's never any mention that climate change will utlimately determine California's water problems for the next century.
One Republican state politician recently pointed to Texas as a state that saved itself from drought, by passing restrictive abortion laws. In remarks highlighted by RH Reality Check, Republican assemblywoman Shannon Grove told anti-abortion activists in June that “it rained that night” when Texas passed restrictions against abortion clinics and limiting abortion for women who are pregnant over 20 weeks. “Now God has His hold on California,” she said. Grove explained further, “we do know for sure that California’s water shortage crisis has been compounded by liberal politicians’ poor decisions – not properly managing our water resources and refusing to build water storage for decades.” (Grove later denied she ever made these comments.)
In May, Bill Koenig of the right-wing website World Watch Daily added gay marriage to the list of reasons why God is punishing California. "We've got a state that, over and over again, will go against the word of God, that will continually take positions on marriage and abortion and on a lot of things that are just completely opposed to the Scriptures. Unfortunately, a lot of times when it starts in California, it spreads to the rest of the country and even spreads to the rest of the world. So there very likely could be a drought component to this judgment."
The anti-immigration group Californians for Population Stabilization has run a 30-second spot that links the drought to immigration. A boy in the ad asks, “If Californians are having fewer children, why is it so crowded? If Californians are having fewer children, why are there so many cars? If Californians are having fewer children, why isn’t there enough water?” The announcer adds, “Let’s slow immigration, and save some California for tomorrow.” Grist’s Ben Adler noted that this group is not alone in blaming immigration either. A National Review writer said California’s population growth, “due to massive and recent immigration,” has strained limited water supplies.
Adler thoroughly debunked this. Residential use is responsible for 14 percent of California’s water consumption, and its rich neighborhoods—where single-family homes have vast green yards—hog a disproportionate amount of water. Even so, maybe it’s unfair to blame rich Californians for wanting nice lawns when it’s the agriculture industry that’s responsible for 80 percent of the state’s water consumption.
Of all the right’s excuses for the drought, their favorite culprit might be environmentalists, particularly the ones who are struggling to save the 3-inch delta smelt fish from extinction. The lack of freshwater has driven the fish population to record lows, which serve as a signal for the health of the ecosystem. Due to the fish's protection under the Endangered Species Act, central California faces limitations to how much water it can pump from rivers that feed into the delta, and proposals to construct new dams and aqueducts for water storage face additional legal hurdles. In speeches, presidential candidate Carly Fiorina has mentioned the drought as a “man-made tragedy” brought on by “overzealous environmentalists. Fiorina and others have eyed this water, left to flow into the ocean, as a waste of resources, even though it's necessary for the survival of a diverse ecosystem.
At times, liberals have been just as guilty of manipulating drought politics to advance their favorite causes. California legislators last year introduced a bill to place a moratorium on fracking, citing the drought, while anti-fracking groups like Californians Against Fracking have run ads charging that fracking is too risky when water level is so low. Companies like Nestlé and Starbucks drew fire for selling water bottled in California to the rest of the country—Starbucks caved, announcing it would move operations, while Nestle has not budged save for a few new water conservation measures.
In an April interview, though, Peter Gleick, head of the water think tank Pacific Institute, said that fracking and bottled water are irrelevant in terms of the drought. "The amount of water used is tiny compared to agriculture and urban water use,” he said. “We’re not going to solve the drought problem by eliminating bottled water or fracking in California.” (He did go on to say, however, that both deserve legitimate criticism for their impact on the environment.)
It's impossible for either side to talk about the drought without discussing climate change, which will place the biggest strain on California’s water in the coming century. Atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe explained: “In a warmer world, more water evaporates from our reservoirs and lakes—and our soils—making droughts stronger than they would be otherwise. In the case of California, we also know that record heat exacerbated this effect, leading to more drying than would have occurred otherwise.” According to Kevin Trenberth, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and co-author of a recent study on extreme weather and climate change, the extra heat from global warming has to go somewhere, so it dries things out and increases the risk of wildfires and heat waves. “It means the consequences of a drought are worse,” he said. “And it can become more widespread and last longer.”
Conservatives prefer to keep things simple, and blame droughts on fish.