Joe Mathews: Water could bring the state closer together

Published: Thursday, Mar. 13, 2014 - 12:00 am

Yes, we’re in a drought, but there’s still good reason to break out the sandbags: to protect ourselves against a flood of conventional media wisdom about California water.

As legislators and voters debate proposals for water infrastructure and bonds, TV stations have already declared that we’re in a “Water War.” Soon you will hear, attributed to Mark Twain, that “whiskey is for drinking and water is fighting.” And you are probably reading, again and again, that water, as much as anything, divides California.

That is entirely backward. Water, more than anything, unites California.

Which is precisely why it’s such a big problem.

Anything that unites a place as big and diverse as California is going to create trouble. So of course we fight and battle and litigate, and then litigate some more, over water. But the fighting is not a symptom of divide. We fight over water because we share the same water.

In California, people can spend their whole lives depending on water from places they’ll never visit. San Francisco takes water from the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. Southern California depends on the Colorado River, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the Owens Valley. It is the very length and scale of our water union that make water such a fraught question. Complex politics and conflict are givens when so many communities and interests are tied to the same supplies.

What is remarkable about California is not our watery battles but the enduring cooperation that allowed us to build this system in the first place, and to more or less maintain it to this day.

Yes, we have neglected too much of this water infrastructure and are now seeing bills coming due. But the other big networks that unite California are arguably in even worse shape. The prisons are such an unconstitutionally crowded mess that the U.S. Supreme Court has ordered us to release tens of thousands of inmates – a mandate we’ve been unable to fulfill.

We’ve gutted state support for our most important economic engines, our university systems; even if Gov. Jerry Brown’s new budget plans come to fruition, that state support will remain a fraction of what it was before the recession.

Indeed, public frustration with these systems and how they are governed runs so deep that they have become another binding agent; from the Oregon border to San Diego, Californians share a strong sense of the state’s governing dysfunction.

But water unites us more than any of these. After all, not everyone can get into California’s universities and prisons.

The real news in the drought so far is the announcement of the first-ever “zero allocation” in California. Our state and federal water projects have projected that they won’t be making deliveries of water – effectively shutting down water’s movement from north to south, and forcing regions to find alternatives.

This has been a blow to San Joaquin Valley farmers. More profoundly, it’s a shock to our water unity, because it raises the scary question of how much of the water that has connected California for decades will be there for us in the future.

So as you try to understand the conversations around water now and in the years ahead, ignore the media fight promoters and focus on the question of water union. Will the drought or the water proposals before us loosen the ties that bind us – and force each region to rely more on local sources of water? Or will they bind us more closely to existing, aging water systems – connecting Californians more deeply but adding to our risk if climate change and environmental regulation diminish the water supply?

The water bond that Californians may vote on in November, and the proposed tunnels to take water from the Sacramento River under the Delta to the South, both come out of state government, and so they are – quite naturally – the embodiment of the keep-us-together-in-water approach.

At the same time, enlightened water districts around the state are embracing recycling and storage, and investigating other means to boost local water supplies.

The irony is that California’s regions, by keeping and producing more of their water at home, may bring the state closer together and diminish conflict. California state government and politics, after all, have become dangerously polarized and contentious thanks to centralized fiscal power in Sacramento. When the budget is tight, we all fight against one another. In the same way, being tied so closely to the same water system adds to conflict as we all seek to draw from a common pool.

More regional independence – in water and in taxes – might well make us better neighbors, and better collaborators in managing the networks that bind us together.

It’s the paradox of this moment in California: To keep the state together, we may need to stand apart.


Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square (www.zocalopublicsquare.org).

Read more articles by Joe Mathews



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