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California's watery madness

A footbridge spans a dry river bed in Porterville, Calif.
Getty Images
A footbridge spans a dry river bed in Porterville, Calif.

Once upon a time, environmental and conservationist groups worked hard to preserve the ecology for the sake of humanity. Even when they worked to preserve an animal habitat or a wetland, the solid argument was that this kind of conservation was also needed to improve human quality of life. And when that was the goal, it was still possible to make progress no matter what kind of partisan groups controlled state and federal government.

Not anymore.

The drought emergency mess in California is a prime example. Yes, there has been a lot less rainfall in recent years. But that's mostly a problem in the southern half of the state, and engineers and municipal planners have long known that the way to fix that is to dam the rivers in the rainier northern section of the state. That way, water is conserved, diverted to the parched south, flood incidents are reduced in the north, and everybody wins.

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This policy thrived in California for decades under Republicans and Democrats in Sacramento, but it was not without some important nuance. When Ronald Reagan was governor, a massive dam project on the Eel River in Round Valley was canceled thanks to Reagan's opposition. Reagan's chief adviser on environmental issues was a man named Norman "Ike" Livermore who was a Republican conservationist in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt. Livermore and Reagan shared a love for the outdoors. But they both wanted to preserve California's rich natural beauty so humans could enjoy it. Not only did their efforts help stop the potentially destructive Eel River project, but they also blocked the Trans-Sierra Highway from destroying the pristine John Muir Trail. Again, all of this was done with the idea of preserving nature for the benefit of the people of California.

But for 40 years now, California's conservation efforts and policies have treated its people like they're villains that need to be punished. Several dam projects that were much more ecologically friendly than Eel River have been nixed on less than the most scientific grounds. Vital reservoirs are routinely drained for the alleged sake of some species of fish alone. A key solar farm project in the Mojave Desert continues to hit snags thanks to law suits filed on behalf of turtles and other animals. The list goes on.

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The bottom line is that the California drought is more the result of conservationism gone mad than it is the result of poor rainfall. "Animal rights" cannot reign legally supreme when they threaten the human population. Ike Livermore and Ronald Reagan understood this and they used that knowledge to preserve water supplies and beautiful nature reserves for California's humans and wildlife alike.

The question is: does anyone in Sacramento get this concept today?

Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Power Lunch." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.