Northern California Water and Power

The heart of California politics is water. Anyone who has studied California history or seen the movie “Chinatown” knows that. While “there will be blood” over oil drilling and many California highways are named after State Assemblymen, the big issue is water. Water turned LA into an oasis. Water makes the San Joaquin Valley an American breadbasket. Water gives Northern California beautiful lakes and rivers. Water is a powerful political weapon.

In 2014, California’s leading politicians talked about the 100 year drought. They appeared in television commercials featuring dried up river beds and lakes. Northern California needed to conserve and send more water south.

Many in the Bay Area practiced predictable virtue signaling, planting “drought tolerant” landscape or plastic grass while shaming neighbors caught watering their lawns. Academics created “water stress ratios” (I mean, how cool is that?) to further promote the idea that water supplies were rapidly drying up. Some asked why we couldn’t trade relatively cheap energy for water and desalinate some of the abundant seawater from the Bay and the ocean, but, in spite of the biblical drought, no de-sal plants appeared.

Politicians convinced California voters to pass Proposition 1, an $8 billion water bond to conserve water, and, as an inside joke, it’s sister Proposition 2, the “Rainy Day Fund” … which, of course, had more to do with pork than rain. Yet, 4 years later, only $2 billion of the $8 billion water conservation funds have been spent – what happened to doomsday? In 2017, the Oroville dam above Sacramento almost burst because of, wait for it, too much water – the irony was that it would have flooded Sacramento, which had failed to use the water conservation money to fix the dam’s spillways – exactly the kind of project you’d expect the money to be used for.

We have a good rainfall and snowfall this year, there is already too much water and there are mudslides, and a recent report from UCLA suggests that, in  future years, rainfall could become worse than 8 Hurricane Katrina’s or more devastating than all the wildfires we’ve ever had. Some studies have suggested that the deserts could become oceans again. Huh? Biblical drought or biblical flood? Reservoirs or Noah’s Ark?  With billions of water bond funds not even spent, and Californians no longer able to take Federal deductions on their state taxes that pay off those bonds, the “urgent,” unspent water bonds suddenly cost taxpayers 30% more than in 2014 when they passed. What’s going on? Are California voters suckers? Maybe.

First, it should be clear, the agricultural community is not the villain. Oddly, it turns out, California, even during drought years, dumps more fresh water – hundreds of billions of gallons – into San Francisco Bay than the entire Central Valley needs to irrigate crops.  The amount of fresh water dumped into the Bay each year is also enough to sustain millions of Californians for years. And yet there are some in Sacramento who would stop any new fresh water conservation projects and waste even more fresh water. Why? Much of California’s fresh water is dumped into the Bay to protect the Delta Smelt, under the Endangered Species Act, which might be injured by diversion of the water to urban and agricultural usage. In 2015, the state lost $2.7 billion in revenue and 10,000 agricultural jobs, and 600,000 acres of farmland lay fallow because this wasted fresh water could not reach the farms. A recent census of the Bay found only 2 smelt, period. Why? Perhaps environmental problems, or perhaps the iron political Law of Unintended Consequences from Sacramento meddling.

Farmers, of course, don’t get off scott-free. Agricultural water, if it gets to farmers, is so heavily subsidized that it hasn’t discouraged water-intensive crops, even when there is a water shortage.

To deal with this mess, Californians have been berated and shamed by politicians and self-appointed neighborhood block committees for using too much water. Taxes increased. Water utilities raised prices and slapped on surcharges for “excessive” water usage – none of which have been rolled back with water surpluses.

Bottom line: water problems in California have far more to do with politics than with God or global climate change. The issue is not endangered species. It is whether politicians explained any of this before asking for $8 billion they didn’t need.

Bottom line: Californians need to learn a little more about the real issues behind water and become a lot more skeptical of their politicians, most of whom are happy to use water to rob voters at gunpoint. Water is real power, politics is a matter of compromise and tradeoffs, and honest politicians explain them. Dishonest ones scream “100 year drought.”