California’s drought is a man-made crisis

By Steven Greenhut

AP photo

AP photo

HIGH AND DRY: The lake bed where water has dried due to the drought at Big Bear Lake, Calif. California cities cut water use by a combined 31 percent in July, exceeding the governor’s statewide mandate to conserve, officials said Aug. 27. The strong water conservation figures show California residents are beginning to understand the dire need to cut back in a fourth year of drought, Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, said.

By Steven Greenhut

SACRAMENTO, California — I was walking through downtown Sacramento recently when raindrops started falling. People on the street stopped dead in their tracks, looked up at the sky and began acting giddy. “What’s that?” I asked a man. “I think it’s something called rain,” he responded. Such is the gallows humor in a state that hasn’t seen substantial rainfall in years.

The obvious lack of rain is the seemingly obvious reason for the state’s lack of sufficient water. Water levels in state reservoirs are falling, officials are cracking down on “excess” water use (lawn-watering, etc.), and voters passed a water bond on the 2014 ballot to help fund more storage. The Capitol crowd is obsessed with the water issue, while local planners use the crisis to clamp down on building permits.

State officials say California’s drought is “one of the most severe droughts on record” and they warn that even an El Nino rainy season is unlikely to fix the situation. In fact, nothing seems to fix the situation. Californians have slashed their water use by 31 percent during July — well above the 25-percent reduction targeted by the governor. And there’s still not enough water.

But as this Watchdog series will show, California’s drought is largely a man-made crisis. 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. More than half of the state’s water resources simply flow out the San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean.

Even now, in the Sierra foothills state officials empty reservoirs to protect “unimpeded” river flows to benefit small numbers of non-endangered hatchery fish. The California Coastal Commission, the powerful agency with control of development along the shoreline, is holding up a privately planned desalination plant over concerns about its impact on plankton. The environmental-friendly commission want to force the developers to build a pumping system that destroys the economics of the plant.

Meanwhile, slow-growth activists see opportunity in the drought. Their goal is to stop new developments despite California’s growing population, so a lack of water is a useful tool in their arsenal. A state law forces developers to prove sufficient water resources for decades into the future — before being able to get a permit to build developments. This slow-growth lobby sees no reason to come up with water-storage solutions.

Even the federal government is in on the action. In the far northern part of the state, along the Klamath River, federal environment officials want to remove four dams that have provided water storage near the Oregon border. Their goal is to help preserve the habitat of non-native salmon. The “destroy the dams” movement had gained so much steam in recent years that San Franciscans were asked in a 2012 advisory vote to destroy the O’Shaughnessy dam in Yosemite National Park and drain the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir — the main source of water for the state’s third-largest city. Even that city’s notoriously lefty voters said “no” to shutting their main water spigot.

If one takes a map of the state of California and turns it on its side, with the Pacific boundary at the bottom, it’s easy to better understand the state’s water geology. Water flows from the Sierra Nevada Mountains through rivers that head toward San Francisco Bay. It all ends up in a place called the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the West Coast’s largest estuary. That’s near the lowest point in your sideways map. Then it heads to the bay and, then, the ocean.

When you hear Californians argue about the Delta, that’s what they are talking about. It’s a 1,100-square-mile area with 1,000 miles of rivers filled with historic towns, orchards, swamps, islands and marinas. That estuary serves as a giant water filter. Primarily, the mighty Sacramento River meanders through the delta, kept within its banks by a series of aged dirt levees. A pumping station at the south end near Tracy sends water along a system of canals to farmers in the San Joaquin Valley — and also to the Southern metropolises.

During wet years, the estuary is filled with fresh water. During droughts, the salinity levels are high as water from the Pacific migrates eastward. That region remains Ground Zero for the state’s water fights. The fate of a tiny baitfish called the Delta Smelt is central here. Occasionally, a few dead smelt are found at the fish screens in Tracy, which causes administrators to shut down water supplies from the Delta toward the south. Water supplies are also stopped during drought years.

In 1982, our past and current governor, Jerry Brown, wanted to build a peripheral canal that would bypass the crumbling levees and take Sacramento River water around the Delta — before heading to the farm and urban water users. The state’s voters rejected that measure. Southern Californians were mostly indifferent to the idea, but Northern Californians resented having more of “their” water sent away.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s latest plan is to build twin tunnels under the Delta to provide a more consistent water supply southward. The planned cost: $25 billion for the total project, with a separate portion geared toward environmental restoration. Northern Californians are still mostly against it, as they claim it’s a water grab by Los Angeles-based users. (To understand the emotions, watch “Chinatown,” the 1974 movie about the deceptive way Owens Valley water was diverted to the Southland to spur the growth of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley).

Looking deeply into the plan, this much is clear: The newly renamed “California Water Fix” doesn’t even promise more water to southern cities. It simply promises a more consistent water supply. The twin tunnels are designed to change the flow of the rivers and protect the Delta Smelt. With the smelt protected, there will be fewer reasons to shut the pumps. In other words, this is a costly engineering solution to a political problem.

And therein lies California’s main water problem. No one here denies the importance of the environment or that some portion of the state’s scarce water resources needs to be used to protect wetlands and river habitats. But the balance of power has shifted from those who believe that people come first to those who seem to view the population as a scourge.

In April, I reported on a contentious meeting at the Oakdale Irrigation District east of Modesto. Farmers and local residents were aghast. The state and federal officials insisted on releasing massive amounts of water from the large New Melones Reservoir and Lake Tulloch, a small lake downstream from New Melones surrounded by homes. As the governor was threatening fines for people who take long showers, his State Water Resources Control Board was going to empty reservoirs to save about a dozen fish.

The local farmers and residents were asking for a temporary reprieve. I remember the words of one of the district officials, who was calling for “off ramps” during times of severe drought. That’s jargon for temporarily putting aside some of the more aggressive environmental demands at a time when farms and people are out of water. Bad publicity delayed the “pulse flows,” but by September water officials began insisting on new releases.

Recent reports showed that farmers use 80 percent of California’s water resources. It’s true that farmers are an important interest group. And because of the state’s old and quirky system of water rights, we see infuriating misuses of resources — e.g., farmers growing water-intensive hay in one of the driest regions on Earth, the southern Imperial Valley.

But that 80 percent number was deceptive because it completely omitted environmental uses of water, which comprise more than 50 percent of the state’s flows. Farmers, businesses and residents fight over what remains. What we’re seeing — water releases to benefit a small number of common fish, removing dams along major rivers, delays of desalination plants, failure to build adequate water storage — is not an anomaly. It is the cumulative effect of water policies dominated by environmental interests.

It wasn’t always this way. In earlier days, California’s water policies had more in common (and with some admittedly ill environmental effect) with the ideas of capitalist defender Ayn Rand than John Muir, the famed naturalist whose environmental legacy dominates California discussions. California leaders were proud of taming the wilderness and building massive infrastructure projects — especially water projects — that allowed the state’s phenomenal growth.

Begun in 1961, when Brown’s dad, Pat Brown, was governor, the State Water Project was begun. “The project includes 34 storage facilities, reservoirs and lakes; 20 pumping plants; four pumping-generating plants; five hydroelectric power plants; and about 701 miles of open canals and pipelines,” according to a state description. “The project provides supplemental water to approximately 25 million Californians and about 750,000 acres of irrigated farmland.”

I’ve toured a lot of the facilities and even was on an official tour of the Colorado River project, following the water as it flowed from reservoirs behind New Deal-era dams at the Arizona border down to the treatment facility in the Los Angeles. It was quite a feat to build these projects. As I argued in my Orange County Register column at the time, it could never be replicated today in a world of Environmental Impact Statements, greenmail lawsuits filed under the California Environmental Quality Act and a political system dominated by officials more interested in quashing human development than providing the means for humans to thrive in this arid climate.

Sure, it would help if it rained — but the lack of rain is the least of California’s drought problems.

 AP Photo / Rich Pedroncelli

AP Photo / Rich Pedroncelli

HE WHO SMELT IT: California Gov. Jerry Brown calling for dramatic cuts in water consumption, at Echo Summit in April. Under Brown, 12 fish blocked the release of water to thousands of Californians.


SACRAMENTO — If California flew a state flag that truly represented its popular culture, it’s possible we’d have not the Bear Flag but a guy shrugging his shoulders and the word “Quicquid” – Latin for the state’s unofficial motto, “Whatever.”

California residents have reacted to the state’s increasingly draconian water cutbacks with the well-known “whatever” spirit. They’ve significantly exceeded Gov. Jerry Brown’s water-conservation goals and tolerated rising water prices without taking to the streets in protest.

But the state’s ongoing water wars did, for a short time, lead to some civil disobedience, even though it was barely mentioned in the media. As local TV news stations focused on browning lawns and Brown’s  press conferences – the most famous of them beamed from a spot in the Sierra Nevada mountain range that ought to be covered in snow – a group of feisty rural water officials was resisting state and federal orders to deploy water for fish rather than people. The local officials had angry farm customers at their backs, but  the resistance didn’t seem to get the notice of the governor or last more than a few hours.

In the brief uprising, in April, the Oakdale Irrigation District east of Modesto held its public meeting to discuss government demands to release “pulse flows” from Lake Tulloch – a small, district-controlled reservoir in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Those pulse flows, large water releases, were designed to help about a dozen fish – not 12 species, but 12 individual fish – swim from the lake through the Stanislaus River and out to the Delta and then to the Pacific Ocean.

Biologists at Fishbio, a firm that counts fish in the river on behalf of water agencies, note that these fish are unlikely to get far down the river before more aggressive invasive species eat them. Once in the Pacific, they’re fair game for anybody with fins and a face. It’s hard to overcome the food chain. But that didn’t stop the feds – at the urging of California state officials – from insisting on these pulse flows.

ALSO IN THIS SERIES: See Greenhut’s “California’s drought is a man-made crisis”

Management of the dams and waterways involves a complex network of local, state and federal agencies. The feds control the large New Melones Reservoir, which feeds Lake Tulloch, which is controlled by the local agriculturally oriented irrigation district. The feds were releasing the water but the locals vowed not to release the water from Lake Tulloch. The agencies had previously inked a deal allowing the locals to keep water levels higher until spring, but “fish concerns,” as the Modesto Bee put it, were forcing earlier flows.

As one board member asked at that meeting, “What if we tell them to go to hell?”

The protest was averted by a last-minute deal, but this was serious stuff. I was at that Oakdale meeting and the farmers and water officials were angry the state and feds were not relenting even in this time of drought. The locals called for flexibility, for different standards during periods of drought. State and federal officials basically say their hands are tied by the federal Endangered Species Act, as if laws cannot be revised to reflect a particularly difficult situation.

This wasn’t the only instance of strange water priorities. A Modesto Bee article focused on a proposed project to help 500 to 1,000 salmon a year swim around the Don Pedro Reservoir near Turlock. Depending on the ultimate cost of the project (estimated at between $70 million and $150 million), the per-fish figure would range between a whopping $70,000 and $300,000 per salmon. That’s a lot of money for a fish that consumers can buy in the grocery store for $6 a pound.

These aren’t odd scenarios. The tiny Delta Smelt is an endangered fish that regularly causes regulators to shut down the pumps at the State Water Project, which send Sacramento River water southward. “To protect smelt from water pumps, government regulators have flushed 1.4 trillion gallons of water into the San Francisco Bay since 2008,” wrote Allysia Finley in the Wall Street Journal. “That would have been enough to sustain 6.4 million Californians for six years.”

When I first learned about the Delta Smelt situation, I thought the state was shutting water supplies to protect an entire species of fish – something that might be more understandable. But officials find just a handful of dead smelt in the fish screens at the Tracy pumps each year. As Finley explains, despite the enormous costs of using so much water to save the smelt, the fish continues its decades-long decline. The situation certainly says much about the state’s priorities – and the “success” of its ongoing policies.

Those 1.4 trillion gallons of arguably misspent water resources are only a small portion of the smelt-related costs. Gov. Brown has been championing something called the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. It is essentially a project to build twin tunnels underneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta – the West Coast’s largest estuary, and home to that particular species of smelt – to provide more reliable water supplies from the (usually) wetter northern part of the state to the farms and cities in the more arid southern regions.

The total price tag was $25 billion for tunnels, plus billions more for ecological restoration. The administration has since revised its plan and now calls it the California Water Fix. The smaller, $15.5-billion project removes a portion of the habitat restoration and uses gravity rather than large, clanging pumps to move water at the north end of the Delta. The change was driven by the refusal of federal environmental agencies to provide a 50-year operating permit – something they said was unreasonable given changing environmental conditions.

RELATED: State and feds spend millions to save handful of trout

As I argued in my previous Watchdog article, the tunnel proposal – whether in its original or reduced form – is an engineering solution to a political problem. The imperiled smelt often cause administrators to shut down the water pumps. Rather than revise the political rules governing the smelt, the state is proposing at least $15 billion in spending to restructure water flows throughout the region. How much will that end up costing on a per-smelt basis?

One could argue this isn’t totally about a small number of fish, but about overall ecological restoration. Yet when the governor announced the new plan, he said: “We can’t just cross our fingers, hoping for the best in the Delta. Fish populations are at an all-time low. Bold action is imperative. We’ve listened to the public and carefully studied the science. This revised plan is the absolute best path forward.”

It certainly sounds like it’s about the fish. But if it is, it’s worth noting there’s enormous disagreement about whether the plan will even improve their habitat. Environmentalists who oppose the project say it won’t. “The Delta Water Tunnels would instead destroy endangered and threatened fish species,” said Robert Wright, senior counsel for Friends of the River, in a statement. “The Tunnels would divert for the Central Valley and State Water Project vast quantities of freshwater from the Sacramento River near Clarksburg that would no longer flow through the lower Sacramento River, sloughs, and Delta,” he added. “This would jeopardize the continued existence of endangered and threatened species of fish and adversely modify their designated critical habitat by taking away freshwater flows for Winter Run Chinook salmon, spring-run Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, green Sturgeon and Delta smelt.”

Biologists will argue, but the main arguments center on fish habitats – not on the effect of such policies on taxpayers, water users, property owners and farmers. In a government-controlled water system, the prices of water – or fish – rarely reflect the actual costs of the product. That leads to myriad problems, with urban water users and farmers using their political clout to keep the water flowing at nicely affordable and highly subsidized rates. But there’s little question these groups are left fighting over the water that isn’t used to protect some fish.

Many times, the regulators are trying to protect fish that aren’t native to the area. Some environmentalists have long criticized the state’s system of dams and seek to demolish some of them to return rivers to their natural state. Yet often the fish being saved wouldn’t even live that far inland if not for the dams. Without the dams, some rivers would run dry in the summer months. Often the fish being saved are the products of hatcheries – and almost certainly will be eaten by other species somewhere along their journey to the sea.

The smelt are big swimmers compared to plankton, tiny organisms that do not swim at all. But the California Coastal Commission is holding up a Huntington Beach desalination plant because of its potential impact on plankton.

In reality, there’s no sense blaming plankton, smelt, trout or salmon. The problem is state and federal officials more concerned about bureaucratic and environmental priorities than people.

This reality causes head-scratching in the rare instances it is reported on. People often don’t believe it. “You mean the state really is lowering a large reservoir to protect about a dozen of hatchery bred salmon?” they’ll ask me skeptically. “The governor really is planning to spend tens of billions of dollars on tunnel project largely because of a smelt?”

As long as Californians shrug it off in that “whatever” way, it’s unlikely anything is going to change. I imagine that as long as water comes out of our taps, there’s little chance for civil disobedience, widespread protest – or anything more than a few grumbles.

AP file photo

AP file photo

GOLDEN STATE GOES BROWN: Gov. California Jerry Brown (left) with his father, the state’s big-thinking former governor.

Environmentalists don’t really care about an endangered bait fish. California’s war over water is about population control

SACRAMENTO — Until the 1970s, when Jerry Brown first became California’s governor, state policy makers were unflinching in their mission to build infrastructure that would meet the demands of a rapidly growing state. Building great public works projects was a source of pride. It was costly, but viewed as a small price to pay to live in this verdant paradise.

The California Water Plan, a 1957 state planning document, said, “Today, the future agricultural, urban and industrial growth of California hinges on a highly important decision, which is well within the power of the people to make. We can move forward with a thriving economy by pursuing a vigorous and progressive water development and planning construction program; or we can allow our economy to stagnate, perhaps even retrogress by adopting a complacent attitude….”

The water plan was the culmination of a special session of the Legislature called by Gov. Goodwin Knight, and it became the foundation for the State Water Project, a massive system of dams, aqueducts and pumping stations that would move water from the rainy northern part of the state to the desert-like Southland. The report set the state for a statewide initiative battle three years later, which authorized a bond to build the project. The project built on the creation of a state water plan earlier in the century.

The nation had built freeways, bridges and other physical structures essential to a modern post-war economy, the planners explained. But neither federal nor state governments had built the dams, canals and pumps to sustain arid California’s continuing growth.

State planners wanted to rectify the situation. At that time, California had just over 14 million people, but it was clear the population would grow as Americans flocked to a land of beaches, mountains and endless sunshine. The state’s motto could have been, “They’re coming, so we might as well build it.” And build it they did.

In just three years, the blueprint was on the way to reality. In the interim, legislators and then-Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown – Jerry’s father – fought a tough statewide initiative battle to gain public approval for the undertaking.

As the California Department of Water Resources explains on its web site, “Approval of a state water project did not come easily. Such an immense project had never been constructed. Its costs and engineering feasibility were questioned. Parties in the state’s north and south regions vehemently opposed the project. Northerners claimed the water was rightfully theirs and did not want their water flowing south….” The state’s leaders threw their weight behind the project.

“Development of our water resources is crucial to every segment of our state — the ranchers in our mountain areas, the farmers who make California the nation’s leading agricultural producer and the home owners in our population, which will grow to 20 million by 1970,” said Pat Brown, whose administration oversaw the bulk of the project’s construction.

The same approach continued after Ronald Reagan became governor in 1967. Construction was completed on the 770-foot-high Oroville dam in the northeastern Sacramento Valley – the tallest earth-filled dam in the country. In 1971, “Reagan starts the first pump at A.D. Edmonston Pumping Plant, as part of a ceremony celebrating the first water deliveries to Southern California,” according to the state department of water resources. Fourteen years later the bulk of the project was built.

Today, that would barely be enough time for the environmental reviews and lawsuits to run their course. The bureaucratic hurdles, the unwillingness to build, began with a change in philosophy, soon after Reagan left the governor’s mansion, in 1975.

By then, the environmental movement was growing. New pumping plants and dams were no longer celebrated because they halted the natural flow of rivers. Population growth became a major concern, with new infrastructure increasingly viewed as its catalyst.

You can find the source of that philosophy in the writings of Jerry Brown’s inspiration, the British economist E.F. Schumacher who became popular in the 1970s for his assertion “small is beautiful.”

“Nature always … knows where and when to stop,” Schumacher wrote. “Greater even than the mystery of natural growth is the mystery of the natural cessation of growth. There is measure in all natural things – in their size, speed, or violence. As a result, the system of nature, of which man is a part, tends to be self-balancing, self-adjusting, self-cleansing.”

And nature did stop – with help from Jerry Brown. “If we don’t build it, they won’t come” seemed to become the state’s new motto.

In his first two terms, Brown halted a variety of infrastructure projects, believing that stopping new roads and pipelines would somehow slow the influx of new Californians. But people kept coming.

“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,” wrote Hoover Institution fellow Victor Davis Hanson, a native of California’s Central Valley, in a Newsweek article earlier this year.

For the last 40 years, the state has struggled with this tension – between the need to build facilities that accommodate a population now pushing 39 million, and the desire to put the brakes on growth in this unquestionably beautiful state. The state has long had a strong environmental tilt (think naturalist John Muir), and in recent years that emphasis has been winning the political battles.

Jerry Brown is now serving his fourth term as governor. In recent years, he has become an advocate of some large infrastructure-building projects – the $68-billion-plus High Speed Rail System and the $15.5-billion-plus project to build twin tunnels underneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. But even those projects bear the imprint of Schumacher’s idealization of nature. Brown’s bullet-train project is meant to lure Californians out of their cars. The tunnels are largely designed to fix the fish habitat in the West Coast’s largest estuary. Neither project is primarily about serving the needs of a growing population.

The governor’s approach to traditional infrastructure remains largely the same. Indeed, his latest budget didn’t even include new dollars to upgrade the state’s infrastructure – something he left to a special “transportation” session that ultimately failed to provide much action.

Many critics of the rail project argue that such a large investment – the largest state infrastructure project in the nation’s history – would be better made in finishing the water project that Brown’s father helped start. That’s something the Brown administration adamantly opposes. (Some rail opponents are circulating a statewide initiative for the November 2016 ballot that would redirect a portion of the rail money, $8 billion, toward water storage.)

Of course, any new water storage projects would take years to complete – and wouldn’t do much to deal with the ongoing drought. So Californians now have to deal with the results of previous policy approaches. And for years there hasn’t been much serious effort to help the state handle the kind of drought it now faces.

For instance, a great deal of water spending in recent years isn’t really about water inrastructure. In a series of newspaper advertisements last year, Stockton-area farmer and food processor Dino Cortopassi complained about “bait-and-switch borrowing,” in which bond supporters tout initiatives that appear “to support highly popular causes which most Californians care deeply about” but which in fact within the fine print “actually authorize most of the billions in bond funds to be spent on dozens of other unrelated projects/agencies.”

Transportation bonds end up spending the bulk of the dollars on bike trails and environmental improvements, for instance. Cortopassi points to a 2006 water bond (Proposition 84), which raised $5.4 billion to help water agencies meet storage and other needs: “Instead, hidden fine print within the initiative authorized $3 billion in unrelated ‘internal/external’ pork spending.”

In other words, legislators and other state leaders were just looking for ways to bolster pet projects. They haven’t been serious about bolstering the state’s water infrastructure.

That’s true even after the drought had become a problem. In a 2014 water bond, “only a third of the money will go to construction of reservoirs canceled in the 1970s and 1980s” and the bulk of the money “will fund huge new state bureaucracies to regulate access to groundwater and mandate recycling,” explained Davis Hanson.

Such pork barreling may be more about “politics as usual” than anything ideological. But in June, Gov. Brown spoke before the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. As the Daily Caller reported, he not only expressed concern that global warming was a cause of the drought, but asked, “At some point, how many people can we accommodate?”

Many environmentalists still believe infrastructure growth causes population growth. The Washington Post’s Justin Wm. Moyer recently argued that Pat Brown’s infrastructure projects “created a nightmare. The population of California in 1959 was about 15 million. Today, about 39 million people live there, and they’re all thirsty. Meanwhile, some of them have thirsty crops. Really thirsty ones: Agriculture uses 80 percent of the state’s water.”

He then quotes “Cadillac Desert” author Marc Reisner: “When you added a couple of lanes to a freeway or built a new bridge, cars came out of nowhere to fill them. It was the same with water: the more you developed, the more growth occurred, and the faster demand grew. California was now hitched to a runaway locomotive.”

There’s so much wrong in all this that it’s hard to know where to begin. Let’s start with the claim that agriculture uses 80 percent of California’s water, a figure that excludes so-called environmental uses of water – that is, water released into the wilds to sustain a regulator’s sense of what constitutes wildlife. But Moyer’s main point is revealing: “Faced with historic drought, Brown’s son Jerry must now find a way to slow that locomotive down. He’s ordered cities and towns to cut water use by 25 percent, but some wondered whether his plan was a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.”

It’s the same old philosophy from the 1970s: if we slow infrastructure creation, we’ll limit population growth – and population control is the real goal of the environmental movement. Supporting that effort, the media have been flush with stories about this struggle between limited water and growth. A New York Times feature from April captures the gist of them: “California drought tests history of endless growth.”

Ironically, mass resistance to growth isn’t just a fixation of the Left. Even in the 1970s, the California tax revolt – driven by conservatives tired of endless government spending – helped temper the infrastructure-spending binge. When I wrote about politics in Orange County, the nation’s most Republican large county at the time, I often heard anger about growth from affluent conservative suburbanites tired of congestion and immigration.

A conservative activist group last summer ran radio advertisements blaming the drought on immigration. “Virtually all of California’s population growth is from immigration,” said a narrator. “Let’s slow immigration and save some of California for tomorrow.”

In 2001, Gov. Gray Davis signed a controversial bill by Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, which forces developers to identify water supplies far into the future before being granted building permits. Proponents called it “a rational way to regulate growth,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Opponents knew that it would significantly slow the construction of new subdivisions. It’s a key example of water politics being used as population control.

Despite the obvious and well-documented shift from the philosophy of Pat Brown to the philosophy of Jerry Brown, the environmental movement continues to claim that water policy is tilted too far in the direction of agricultural interests. They want to “rethink” California’s system of water rights, which is a fancy way of saying they want to divert water from farmers to environmental uses. Their target isn’t the population – but the farmers working to feed it.

There has always been a fight between different interests and jockeying over the right amount of water to handle legitimate environmental concerns. But 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. 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.

New York author Seth Siegel recently published a book about arid Israel’s solution to its endemic water crisis and authored a commentary in the Daily Beast offering “Israel’s drought lessons for California.” He offers sensible fixes used by a desert nation with little choice but to manage its scarce water resources wisely – especially as it seeks to lure more Jews to Israel. Siegel offers a technological path, but he can’t do much about our policy makers’ absence of will.

The first two parts of this Watchdog series detail the latest manifestations of the problem. Current state policies include emptying reservoirs to protect a dozen or so fish, demolishing dams to restore an area’s ecology, and slowing a desalination plant over concerns about plankton. Bottom line: Environmental politics dominate the state’s water decisions, and one need not look far to find reticence about welcoming more people.

Until that focus changes, Californians will be left to the mercy of Mother Nature.

Associated Press photo / Lenny Ignelzi

Associated Press photo / Lenny Ignelzi

NOW! LOW SODIUM! One sign that California’s water politics are increasingly rational: America’s’ largest seawater desalination plant opened this year in San Diego County. The plant produces 50 million gallons of drinking water daily.


By Steven Greenhut |

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – As the Civil War came to a close, Mark Twain re-invigorated his writing career in a tiny house near the gold-mining enclave of Angels Camp in the heart of California’s gold-rush country. There he wrote the short story eventually titled “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” based on a tale he heard in a local bar.

The tale of Jim Smiley and his talented bullfrog has long inspired writers (and even spawned an annual frog-jumping contest at the Calaveras County fairgrounds). Twain, however, is more often quoted in California regarding water  – whether accurately or not, we’ll let the scholars determine – with words so evocative they’ve become a cliché in the state: “Whiskey,” he is supposed to have said, “is for drinking; water is for fighting over.”

In 1865, California’s population had just topped 400,000 – and that was after the gold discoveries brought droves of people here from around the world. It’s an arid state, so water has always been something to fight over. But its politics have changed. The political emphasis, it seems, has shifted from meeting the needs of a population that’s now above 39 million to one that often views water scarcity as a means for growth control.

As this Watchdog series has pointed out, California’s politics have turned the recent drought into a crisis. The politics have prioritized environmental demands above the basic provision of water resources to the public. From the 1950s to the 1970s, California built one of the most impressive systems of dams and aqueducts the world has ever known. After that, the focus shifted to demolishing dams and emptying reservoirs to protect fish.

The change wasn’t much of a problem when Mother Nature blessed California with “normal” amounts of rainfall – filling those previously built reservoirs and assuring a deep snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. But the drought – one of the most severe in California history – has sparked a particularly vicious spell of fighting, even in the absence of whiskey.

Many Californians reacted angrily to news that state and federal officials have continued emptying dams to save a handful of non-endangered hatchery fish – even as farmers fallowed orchards and fields and as suburban residents cut back on lawn watering to avoid heavy fines.

Same goes as federal officials moved forward with plans to demolish several dams along the Klamath River (near the Oregon border) as a means to protect fish populations. Nor did the water crisis stop the California Coastal Commission from holding up the construction of an ocean-water desalination plant over concerns about the health of plankton.

But there are signs the pendulum is swinging back toward the rational.

The Legislature put on the ballot a water bond that has at least some serious money for storage – and not just environmental gimmies. Gov. Jerry Brown has been championing the construction of a $15.5-billion project to dig twin tunnels underneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the west coast’s biggest estuary, to provide water supplies southward to farms and big cities. That controversial project is largely about protecting the endangered Delta Smelt, a fish that often gets stuck in the pumps and causes pumping-station shutdowns. But it does suggest an effort to deal with a major water-reliability issue. And as this series also reported, some local water agencies – San Diego’s in particular – are doing such a good job planning for the future that they have so much water they don’t even know where to put it all.

Not all the news was good. For instance, 2015 ended amid acrimony in Congress, as Republicans and Democrats couldn’t agree on the terms of a long-standing compromise (between two states, the feds, Native American tribes, farmers, the fishing industry, environmentalists) dealing with water distribution along the state’s northern border. “Fueled by partisan acrimony over the proposed removal of four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River – a crucial component in a trio of settlements that became known as the Klamath Agreements – Congress has once again adjourned for the year without passing a bill to authorize and fund the accords,” reported the Sacramento Bee.

But from a water storage standpoint, the collapse of the accords isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “Tearing down four perfectly good hydroelectric dams when we can’t guarantee enough electricity to keep your refrigerator running this summer is lunacy,” said U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, in a statement quoted in that Bee article.

This Watchdog series reported on a policy that caused consternation among farmers and residents last year – the state’s determination to lower the level of the massive New Melones reservoir and smaller Lake Tulloch to raise river water temperatures and aid the westward migration of about a dozen fish. Those 12 individual fish – not species, mind you – were almost certain to be eaten by invasive species before they made it to San Francisco Bay. We also highlighted a Modesto Bee story about a project to help some salmon swim safely around Don Pedro Dam, at a cost of between $70,000 and $300,000 per critter.

These things might be justified when the state is awash in water – but during a drought? McClintock’s description as “lunacy” seems to apply to these policies, also.

But here’s a December 15 news story from the Sacramento Bee: “California drought regulators … backed off a controversial plan to withhold water from farms and cities next year in an effort to preserve an endangered species of salmon, instead choosing a more flexible approach they said still could do the trick.” Whatever the motivations – the return of good sense among bureaucrats or a response to public outrage – this was good news for farmers, businesses and residents.

And there’s the best news of all (and the likeliest means to fix the state’s water problem): Mother Nature has finally been coming through with buckets of rain. Over two days in late December, pouring rain pushed up the level of enormous Lake Tahoe by nearly 2 inches, thus adding nearly 6.4 billion (with a “b”) gallons of water.

None of this undermines Twain’s (perhaps apocryphal) words. Water will always be something to fight over in California. But there’s more hope for avoiding a crisis. If not hope, there’s always whiskey.

Steven Greenhut is the California columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune and senior contributor to Watchdog. He is based in Sacramento. Write to him at


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