Victor Davis Hanson on the California Drought ~ City Journal

Just as California’s freeways were designed to grow to meet increased traffic, the state’s vast water projects were engineered to expand with the population. Many assumed that the state would finish planned additions to the California State Water Project and its ancillaries. But in the 1960s and early 1970s, no one anticipated that the then-nascent environmental movement would one day go to court to stop most new dam construction, including the 14,000-acre Sites Reservoir on the Sacramento River near Maxwell; the Los Banos Grandes facility, along a section of the California Aqueduct in Merced County; and the Temperance Flat Reservoir, above Millerton Lake north of Fresno. Had the gigantic Klamath River diversion project not likewise been canceled in the 1970s, the resulting Aw Paw reservoir would have been the state’s largest man-made reservoir. At two-thirds the size of Lake Mead, it might have stored 15 million acre-feet of water, enough to supply San Francisco for 30 years. California’s water-storage capacity would be nearly double what it is today had these plans come to fruition. It was just as difficult to imagine that environmentalists would try to divert contracted irrigation and municipal water from already-established reservoirs. Yet they did just that, and subsequently moved to freeze California’s water-storage resources at 1970s capacities.

All the while, the Green activists remained blissfully unconcerned about the vast immigration into California from Latin America and Mexico that would help double the state’s population in just four decades, to 40 million. Had population growth remained static, perhaps California could have lived with partially finished water projects. The state might also have been able to restore the flow of scenic rivers from the mountains to the sea, maintained a robust agribusiness sector, and even survived a four-or-five-year drought. But if California continues to block new construction of the State Water Project as well as additions to local and federal water-storage infrastructure, officials must halve California’s population, or shut down the 5 million acres of irrigated crops on the Central Valley’s west side, or cut back municipal water usage in a way never before done in the United States.

Victor Davis Hanson, “The Scorching of California: How Green Extremists Made a Bad Drought Worse,” The City Journal, Winter 2015 (Vol 25, No. 1), 82.

An Engineered Drought

California governor Jerry Brown had little choice but to issue a belated, state-wide mandate to reduce water usage by 25 percent. How such restrictions will affect Californians remains to be seen, given the Golden State’s wide diversity in geography, climate, water supply, and demography.

We do know two things. First, Brown and other Democratic leaders will never concede that their own opposition in the 1970s (when California had about half its present population) to the completion of state and federal water projects, along with their more recent allowance of massive water diversions for fish and river enhancement, left no margin for error in a state now home to 40 million people. Second, the mandated restrictions will bring home another truth as lawns die, pools empty, and boutique gardens shrivel in the coastal corridor from La Jolla to Berkeley: the very idea of a 20-million-person corridor along the narrow, scenic Pacific Ocean and adjoining foothills is just as unnatural as “big” agriculture’s Westside farming. The weather, climate, lifestyle, views, and culture of coastal living may all be spectacular, but the arid Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay-area megalopolises must rely on massive water transfers from the Sierra Nevada, Northern California, or out-of-state sources to support their unnatural ecosystems.

Now that no more reservoir water remains to divert to the Pacific Ocean, the exasperated Left is damning “corporate” agriculture (“Big Ag”) for “wasting” water on things like hundreds of thousands of acres of almonds and non-wine grapes. But the truth is that corporate giants like “Big Apple,” “Big Google,” and “Big Facebook” assume that their multimillion-person landscapes sit atop an aquifer. They don’t—at least, not one large enough to service their growing populations. Our California ancestors understood this; they saw, after the 1906 earthquake, that the dry hills of San Francisco and the adjoining peninsula could never rebuild without grabbing all the water possible from the distant Hetch Hetchy watershed. I have never met a Bay Area environmentalist or Silicon Valley grandee who didn’t drink or shower with water imported from a far distant water project.

The Bay Area remains almost completely reliant on ancient Hetch Hetchy water supplies from the distant Sierra Nevada, given the inability of groundwater pumping to service the Bay Area’s huge industrial and consumer demand for water. But after four years of drought, even Hetch Hetchy’s huge Sierra supplies have only about a year left, at best. Again, the California paradox: those who did the most to cancel water projects and divert reservoir water to pursue their reactionary nineteenth-century dreams of a scenic, depopulated, and fish-friendly environment enjoy lifestyles predicated entirely on the fragile early twentieth-century water projects of the sort they now condemn.


We’re suffering the ramifications of the “small is beautiful,” “spaceship earth” ideology of our cocooned elites. Californians have adopted the ancient peasant mentality of a limited good, in which various interests must fight it out for the always scarce scraps. Long ago we jettisoned the can-do visions of our agrarian forebears, who knew California far better than we do and trusted nature far less. Now, like good peasants, we are at one another’s throats for the last drops of a finite supply.

…read it all…

(see also: The Scorching of California)

California, where cool coastal fog is perfect for growing standard broccoli, currently produces more than 90 percent of the broccoli grown in the United States. If California were to disappear, what would the American diet be like?

Expensive and grainy. California produces a sizable majority of many American fruits, vegetables, and nuts: 99 percent of artichokes, 99 percent of walnuts, 97 percent of kiwis, 97 percent of plums, 95 percent of celery, 95 percent of garlic, 89 percent of cauliflower, 71 percent of spinach, and 69 percent of carrots (and the list goes on and on). Some of this is due to climate and soil. No other state, or even a combination of states, can match California’s output per acre. Lemon yields in California, for example, are more than 50 percent higher than in Arizona. California spinach yield per acre is 60 percent higher than the national average.

Without California, supply of all these products in the United States and abroad would dip, and in the first few years, a few might be nearly impossible to find. Orchard-based products in particular, such as nuts and some fruits, would take many years to spring back…


A Tale of Four Droughts


The first California drought, of course, is natural. We are now in the midst of a fourth year of record low levels of snow and rain.

Californians have no idea that their state is a relatively recent construct — only 165 years old, with even less of a pedigree of accurate weather keeping. When Europeans arrived in California in the 15th and 16th centuries, they were struck by how few indigenous peoples lived in what seemed paradise — only to learn that the region was quite dry on the coast and in the interior



If one studies the literature on the history and agendas of the California State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project, two observations are clear. One, our ancestors brilliantly understood that Californians always would wish to work and live in the center and south of the state. They accepted that where 75% of the population wished to live, only 25% of the state’s precipitation fell. Two, therefore they designed huge transfer projects from Northern California that was wet and sparsely settled, southward to where the state was dry and populated. They assumed that northerners wanted less water and relief from flooding, and southerners more water and security from drought, and thus their duty was to accommodate both.

Nor were these plans ossified. Indeed, they were envisioned as expanding to meet inevitable population increases. The Temperance Flat, Los Banos Grandes, and Sites reservoirs were planned in wet years as safety deposits, once higher reservoirs emptied. As population grew larger, dams could be raised at Shasta and Oroville. Or huge third-phase reservoirs like the vast Ah Pah project on the Klamath River might ensure the state invulnerability from even 5-6 year droughts.

One can say what one wishes about the long ago cancelled huge Ah Pah project — what would have been the largest manmade reservoir project in California history — but its additional 15 million acre feet of water would be welcomed today. Perhaps such a vast project was mad. Perhaps it was insensitive to local environmental and cultural needs. Perhaps the costs were prohibitive — a fraction of what will be spent on the proposed high-speed rail project. Perhaps big farming would not pay enough of the construction costs. But one cannot say that its 15 million acre feet of water storage would not have been life-giving in a year like this


One of the ironies of the current drought is that urbanites who cancelled these projects never made plans either to find more water or to curb population. Take the most progressive environmentalist in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, and the likelihood is that his garden and bath water are the results of an engineering project of the sort he now opposes.


The state and federal water projects were envisioned as many things — flood control, hydroelectric generation, irrigation, and recreation. One agenda was not fish restoration. Perhaps it should have been. But our forefathers never envisioned building dams and reservoirs to store water to ensure year-round fish runs in our rivers — a mechanism to improve on the boom-and-bust cycle of nature, in which 19th century massive spring flooding was naturally followed by August and September low, muddy, or dry valley rivers.

Engineering alone could ensure an unnatural river, where flows could be adjusted all year long, almost every year, by calibrated releases from artificial lakes, ensuring about any sort of river salmon or delta bait fish population one desired. One may prefer catching a salmon near Fresno to having a $70 billion agricultural industry, but these days one cannot have both. Releasing water to the ocean in times of drought was not the intention of either the California State Water Project or the Central Valley Project



Even with drought, cancellations of dams, and diversions of contracted water to the ocean, California might well not have been imperiled by the present drought — had its population stayed at about 20 million when most of the water projects were cancelled in the mid-1970s. Unfortunately the state is now 40 million — and growing. Illegal immigration — half of all undocumented aliens live in California — has added millions to the state population. And agriculture is a key route for Mexican immigrants to reach the middle class. Either the state should insist on closing the borders and encourage emigration out of state to no-tax states (which is already happening at about the rate of 1000 to 2000 people per week), or it should build the infrastructure and create the job opportunities to accommodate newcomers in a semi-arid landscape. That would mean that the vast 4-6 million-acre west side of California’s Central Valley remains irrigated, and that there is continued water made available to a 500-mile dry coastal corridor to accommodate a huge influx of immigrants.

Is it liberal or illiberal to ensure that there will be no new water for a vast new San Jose south of San Jose, or that there will prohibitions on immigration and population growth that would halt a new San Jose? Perhaps the liberal position would be for Silicon Valley grandees to relocate to the wet and rainy Klamath River Basin, where it could grow without unnaturally imported water from the Sierra Nevada. In a truly eco-friendly state, Stanford and Berkeley would open new satellite campuses near the Oregon border to match people with water.


One reality we know does not work: deliberate retardation of infrastructure to discourage consumption and population growth, in the manner of Jerry Brown’s small-is-beautiful campaign of the 1970s. Ossifying the 99 and 101 freeways at 1960s levels did not discourage drivers from using them. It only ensured slower commute times, more fossil fuel emissions, and far more dangerous conditions, as more drivers fought for less driving space.

Not building dams and reservoirs did not mean fewer people would have water or food and thus would not keep coming to California, but only that there would be ever more competition — whether manifested in tapping further the falling aquifer or rationing residential usage — for shrinking supplies.

One theme characterizes California’s attitude about water. Liberal orthodoxy is never consistent. While it may be seen as progressive to champion river and delta restoration or to divert reservoir water for scenic and environmental use, or to discourage more development of agricultural acreage, the results in the real world are hardly liberal….

…read it all…

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