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…