Earth Day

Encourage environmental stewardship and private conservation

Earth Day should be a time to leave last week’s tax headaches behind us and to celebrate our natural environment. Instead, many environmental activists lament our failings and cry for more government support. With a nationally down economy and California in the throes of a $35-billion budget crisis (more than the combined budgets of 26 other states), however, those cries are likely to fall on deaf ears. Instead, services will be cut, fees will rise, and the environment will surely get short shrift.

That said, every problem is an opportunity, and California could become a national leader in environmental innovation. All it has to do is to modify the rules of the environmental regulation game to encourage environmental stewardship and private conservation.

California is often on the leading edge of the country. Our high-tech industry is second to none, we entertain the world, and are the nation’s Winter breadbasket. Unfortunately, we are also often on the leading edge of costly regulation, such as the recently abandoned electric car mandate, which stifles innovation and entrepreneurship.

California’s greatest asset is human ingenuity. While Silicon Valley taps into it, politics subverts it – but that same ingenuity and resourcefulness is the key to solving our environmental hurdles. The reason we haven’t started solving them already is simple – politics.

Polluters should pay and natural resources should be conserved, but regulators have lost sight of their environmental aims and focused instead on inputs and processes. For example, while the city of Napa develops its riverfront, the county of Napa considers protecting streams by imposing a one hundred foot setback that could ruin many property owners and viticulturists. The stated goal is water quality, but the performance measure is a blanket application of an unproven setback. If the county is successful, property rights will be weakened, tempers will flare, and vast expense will be incurred in a process unrelated to where the most environmental good can be done.

The California Coastal Commission is in court due to it’s rejection of an entrepreneurial nonprofit’s plan to enhance kelp beds in Southern California. Is the greatest sin of this kelp reforester environmental? Hardly – it’s all about the Commission’s permitting process itself, which even the U.S. Supreme Court has called “a plan of extortion.” Recent reform efforts in Sacramento, however, have ignored the environmental performance of the Commission, focusing instead on the political appointment process.

The U.S. Interior department recently started ratcheting down California’s taps from the Colorado River because a deal couldn’t be reached on a water transfer from the Imperial Valley to San Diego. Why? Not because the transfer was a bad idea, but because the water rights in question were held in trust by a political body (the Imperial Irrigation District). Farming cooperatives elsewhere have found innovative ways to sell water and keep farming, but not in Imperial – water rights are tenuous, so it’s a knock down political fight.

Water policy in California is additionally handicapped because state water law limits the legitimate “uses” of water rights. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, for private groups to allocate water for environmental purposes. If private water rights were stronger, as they are in Oregon, farmers and environmentalists could use water markets to ensure healthy instream flows and healthy agriculture. Instead, we grow monsoon crops in the dessert and send the Salton Sea ever closer to a hyper-saline death.

One of the great demonstrations how human ingenuity affects conservation comes from an Alaskan fishery. Some years ago the state fishery managers decided that the catch of halibut was too large, so they made the season shorter. Before long, what had been an almost ten month season was down to 48 hours – with no real decline in catches. If human ingenuity is applied to getting around a restriction, it will probably succeed. Alaska solved the problem by making fishing rights stronger, so that there was no longer a race to fish. New Zealand has done the same thing, and now that fishers own the fishery, their incentives are completely different. They have lowered their catches on their own, and they pay for their own research and monitoring. The fishery is better managed, the environment is better monitored, and the state spends less on the fishery.

As a nation and as a state, we rely far too heavily on governments at all levels to protect our environment. Instead, we need to tap into that entrepreneurial spirit that has defined our state.

Michael De Alessi is director of natural resource policy at Reason Foundation