When I was a boy growing up in California we called them "mud puddles." If they grew large enough, grown ups called it "flooding."
But now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which enforces the Endangered Species Act, has adopted the bogus poetry of the environmentalist left, calling them "vernal pools."
The question for the immediate future is whether a federal government controlled by Republicans will allow either bureaucrats or un-elected judges to use these "vernal pools" to shutdown development on vast stretches of private property and thus help push the American dream beyond the grasp of some aspiring homeowners in our nation's most populous state.
What we are talking about is the stagnant water that often collects in small ditches or low patches of land in California after winter rains. By summer, these puddles and flooded areas revert to clumps of yellowed grass.
In dry years, they might never materialize. As FWS admitted in a 593-page report released in November: "The duration of the ponding of vernal pools also varies, and in some years certain pools may not fill at all."
So tiny are some of these evanescent water hazards that a kindergartener could vault one in a single bound. "Vernal pools," says the report, "vary from 1 square meter (approximately 1 square yard) to 1 hectare (2.5 acres) or more."
But their impact on property rights could be huge.
About a decade ago, environmental groups began court actions aimed at forcing FWS to list as endangered four species of shrimp that live in California's mud puddles, and to set aside land as "critical habitat" for them. Eventually, FWS listed the shrimp, as well as eleven species of mud-puddle plants.
As it now stands, the conflict between the environmentalists and Fish and Wildlife Service over the "vernal pools" revolves around whether FWS will finally designate 1.67 million acres as "critical habitat" (the goal of the environmentalists) or about 700,000 (the goal of the FWS).
In October, a federal judge ordered FWS to reconsider its decision to designate the smaller number and make a final determination by no later than July 31.
Either way, it will be a massive land grab. The smaller option for mud-puddle "critical habitat" is larger than all of Rhode Island (which extends only 670,000 acres).
Much of the land that would be targeted is concentrated in California's fast-growing Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, where unlike elsewhere in the state, most of the property is privately owned.