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Why California Environmentalists Hate Water

Why California Environmentalists Hate Water

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.


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