The politics behind California’s water crisis

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Thursday, January 14th, 2016

California flag

California is now entering the fourth year of a grueling drought. The state hasn’t seen substantial rainfall in years, and officials are cracking down on excess water use to make up for the lack of water resources. When Governor Jerry Brown called for Californians to reduce their water use by 25 percent, the people did their part with aplomb, cutting back water use by 31 percent last July by doing everything from watering their lawns less to taking shorter showers. But despite these personal conservation efforts, tensions over the state’s water supply are still running high, straining the state’s laid-back, “whatever” attitude. Does a state of nearly 39 million people simply not have enough water?

As Steven Greenhut explained in a special series of reports for Watchdog this fall, there’s good news and bad news for California’s water crisis. The good news is that the state actually has plenty of water – as well as the ability to increase its supply of fresh water. The bad news is that government policies and politicking are getting in the way – and have proven awfully hard to get around.

The political problem

“California’s drought is largely a man-made crisis,” writes Greenhut. “It is caused by a series of policies – some from the past, many that are ongoing – which has prioritized environmental demands above the basic provision of water resources to the public.” Due to these policies, half of California’s water resources flow through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the West Coast’s largest estuary, and end up in the San Francisco Bay. A pumping station at the south end of the Delta sends water from this estuary to farmers in the San Joaquin Valley and the Southern California metropolises. During wet years the system works fine, but during dry years, water supplies are halted. The pump is also hampered by the Delta Smelt, a tiny bait fish that, when it is found in the pump’s fish screens, triggers the shutdown of the entire pumping station.

Several plans have been proposed to work around this problem – all of them exceptionally expensive. Governor Brown’s (pictured below) latest proposal would build a pair of tunnels under the Delta to protect the Delta Smelt. The grand total of the project would cost $25 billion, which many people consider an awfully high price tag for protecting a few fish.

“In other words,” Greenhut summarizes, “this is a costly solution to a political problem.” He quotes a Wall Street Journal article that explains how government regulators have flushed 1.4 trillion gallons of water into the ocean to protect the Delta Smelt since 2008. That would have been enough water for 6.4 million Californians for six years.

Jerry Brown CaliforniaThe problem, Greenhut argues, is that “the balance of power has shifted from those who believe people come first to those who seem to view the population as a scourge.” Critics of California’s water usage frequently cite a figure that shows farmers use 80 percent of the state’s water resources, but that statistic does not include environmental uses of water, which account for fully half of the state’s water flows.

Some of these environmental policies are so extreme they have triggered flares of civil disobedience. In April, for example, the Oakdale Irrigation District near Modesto held a public meeting to discuss government requirements to release “pulse flows” from a district-controlled reservoir in the Sierra Nevada foothills. The flows were designed to protect a dozen fish – yes, you read that right, 12 individual fish – so they could swim out of the reservoir and ultimately to the Pacific Ocean, a journey that biologists said they were unlikely to survive in the first place.

Residents were furious (“What if we tell them to go to hell?” one remarked). Their protest was only averted by a last-minute deal, but it illustrated how serious – and absurd – the water problem has become. Locals wanted flexibility to accommodate unique difficulties like drought, but state and local officials said their hands were tied by the Federal Endangered Species Act.

These environmentalist priorities that suck up so much of the state’s water aren’t always coherent, Greenhut continues. Regulators often try to protect fish that are the product of hatcheries and aren’t native to the area, and environmentalists’ calls to demolish California’s system of dams so that rivers can return to their natural state would sometimes cause rivers to run dry – not a good situation for any fish that happen to be living in them.

Taken as a whole, this incoherent series of policies put in place by environmentalists reveals the true crux of the issue: They don’t really care about an endangered bait fish. California’s war over water is about population control.

Too many people?

California’s water plan from the 1950s to early 1970s under the administrations of Governor Brown’s father, Governor Pat Brown, and Governor Ronald Reagan emphasized “agricultural, urban, and industrial growth.” As the state’s highway system expanded and its population grew, these governors worked to build the necessary dams, canals and pumps to support expansion. The result was one of the most impressive systems of dams and aqueducts the world has ever known, but that began to change soon after Reagan left the governor’s mansion in 1975.

In his first two terms as governor from 1975 to 1983, Jerry Brown halted a number of infrastructure projects, assuming that it would slow the state’s population growth, but it didn’t. People kept coming, leading to more competition for increasingly strained water and food resources. Decades later, under Brown’s second stint as governor, California has started seeing the long-term costs of the environmental philosophy he began to implement in the 1970s. That worldview assumed it could control and contain population growth by slowing infrastructure creation. Admittedly, in recent years California hasn’t kept up its breakneck pace of population growth from the twentieth century, but it continues to outpace the national rate and is projected to hit 50 million residents by 2050.

“Left or right, the state’s leadership was once devoted to building and maintaining a water infrastructure that would meet the needs of a growing population,” Greenhut writes. “That consensus is long gone. And that explains why Californians cannot simply follow the straightforward advice of those who want to help them deal with the ongoing drought.”

Population control, after all, is the ultimate aim of the environmental movement, even if it comes at great cost.

Innovative solutions abound

California’s water problems are not without hope, and there are signs that water policy in the state is swinging back toward the rational. A prime example of this is San Diego County, the state’s second most populous county, which has so much water that the county doesn’t know what do with it. Thanks to several innovative projects, the San Diego County Water Authority plans to reduce its water purchases from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California by two-thirds over the next 15 years.

One such project is a new $1 billion desalination facility, which converts salty ocean water into 50 million gallons of fresh drinking water every day. Government red tape and lawsuits nearly sunk the construction of the facility, which took 18 years from planning to opening. Because it required more equity capital than financial backers anticipated, the project may not end up being a good investment, but the high price tag, like Governor Brown’s proposed pumps in the Delta, is in large part the result of politics. Four separate state agencies had to approve the desalination facility on their own separate tracks, delaying construction by a decade and increasing costs by about 10 percent, or $100 million. Yet despite the regulatory headwinds, it did ultimately become operational.

Other innovative water policies are being implemented at the city level. The San Diego City Council, for instance, is pursuing water recycling technologies like the Pure Water San Diego program, which can turn sewage into drinkable water. The program promises to do so at competitive prices and to provide a third of San Diego’s water by 2035.

“California could easily meet its future water needs – even as the population continues to grow – by embracing technologies that already are working,” Greenhut concludes. “The big question is whether state officials can learn new lessons.”

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