California Forum

Ben Boychuk: Nature got us into this drought, but bad policy will make it worse

Drought is a fact of life in California, which explains why so many politicians have been happy to blame nature and duck questions about what role their choices may have played in exacerbating the catastrophe now unfolding across the state.

We’ve had bad droughts before, but never quite like this.

For the first time in 54 years, the California Water Project forecasts “zero allocation” for agencies serving 25 million residents. That means scarcity and rationing are real prospects this summer. Barring a miracle, the effects – economic and political – would be felt well beyond our borders.

Let’s stipulate “government can’t make it rain.” While we’re at it, let’s enter that phrase into the Great Book of Clichés and banish it from public discourse forevermore.

Let’s also stipulate that government cannot make the trains run on time, or make you happy and wise – although, with the right connections, it can make you wealthy.

Might we further stipulate that if government can clean up after a natural disaster, it can also make a natural disaster worse? Judging from much of the indignant demagoguery emanating from Sacramento and Washington, D.C., this week, the answer appears to be a resounding “Yes.”

Republicans in Congress on Wednesday advanced House Bill 3964, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act, which passed largely along party lines. Only 10 House Democrats, including Fresno’s Jim Costa, voted for it.

The brainchild of California’s GOP delegation, the bill will almost certainly meet its demise in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where both Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer have denounced the legislation as “divisive.” Feinstein even went so far as to call the bill “ugly” and “partisan.” A partisan piece of legislation debated in a political body. Imagine that.

What exactly would HB 3964 do? Simply stated, it would reallocate water controlled by the federal government from conservation and species protection to agriculture. In other words, it would put the needs of farmers above the needs of the Delta smelt.

Now, the idea that public policy might favor people over a baitfish in the face of an honest-to-goodness emergency may strike some as an odd notion. Coincidentally, Gov. Jerry Brown also used the “d”-word in a sternly worded letter to Congress ahead of this week’s vote. Among his complaints: HB 3964 “would override state laws and protections, and mandate that certain water interests come out ahead of others. It falsely suggests the promise of water relief when that is simply not possible given the scarcity of water supplies.”

In general, and even on principle, Brown is correct. The incompetent federal government has no business interfering with state water policies, or anything else for that matter, when incompetent state officials are doing a perfectly terrible job of it themselves.

In practice, however, the feds are neck deep in California water policy and just about everything else. So nobody should be especially offended when Congress butts in where it isn’t welcome.

But Brown is also right that California’s water problem is one of supply as well as demand. With every drought emergency comes the usual calls for better recycling and conservation, which is all to the good. In Southern California, conservation has been the norm for years. For those of us who grew up here in the 1970s, “If it’s brown, flush it down” isn’t just an unkind slogan made at the current incumbent governor’s expense; it’s a lifestyle.

Recycling is fine. Conservation is great. But what we really need is infrastructure.

The Legislature is debating again whether to place an $11 billion water bond on the November ballot. Brown foresees building an elaborate system of tunnels to restore the Delta, providing habitat for the smelt and water for the farmers. Maybe it will work.

But do Californians realize that the state constructed its last major reservoir – Castaic Lake, just north of Los Angeles – in 1973? Do they realize that the last major federal reservoir in the state was completed in 1979?

We’re bickering about tunnels and peripheral canals while badgering people to install low-flow shower heads.

Saudi Arabia and Singapore supply their people with plenty of water through desalinization, which isn’t cheap but it works. Environmentalists are fighting two Southern California desalinization plants with everything they’ve got.

Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, chairman of the House subcommittee on water and power, offered the clearest assessment of the mess we’re in. “California’s drought is nature’s fault,” he said, “but our failure to prepare for it is our fault.” No bond measure or act of Congress can save California from this year’s drought. But the policies we make today can ease the ravages of the next big one.