Why Californians Are Starved of Water

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A visitor walks near the receding waters of Folsom Lake, which is at 17 percent of its capacity, in Folsom, California, on January 22, 2014. Robert Galbraith/Reuters

California is not suffering one drought but four. Each is a metaphor of what California has become.

Nature

The first California drought, of course, is natural. We are now in the midst of a fourth year of record low levels of snow and rain.

Californians have no idea that their state is a relatively recent construct—only 165 years old, with even less of a pedigree of accurate weather keeping. When Europeans arrived in California in the 15th and 16th centuries, they were struck by how few indigenous peoples lived in what seemed paradise—only to learn that the region was quite dry on the coast and in the interior.

Today, modern Californians have no idea of whether a four-year drought is normal, in, say, a 5,000-year natural history of the region, or is aberrant, as wet years are long overdue and will return with a vengeance.

That we claim to know what to expect from about 150 years of recordkeeping does not mean that we know anything about what is normal in nature’s brief millennia. Our generation may be oblivious to that fact, but our far more astute and pragmatic forefathers certainly were not.

Hubris

If one studies the literature on the history and agendas of the California State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project, two observations are clear.

One, our ancestors brilliantly understood that Californians always would wish to work and live in the center and south of the state. They accepted that where 75 percent of the population wished to live, only 25 percent of the state’s precipitation fell.

Two, they therefore designed huge transfer projects from Northern California, which was wet and sparsely settled, southward to where the state was dry and populated. They assumed that northerners wanted less water and relief from flooding, and southerners more water and security from drought, and thus their duty was to accommodate both.

Nor were these plans ossified. Indeed, they were envisioned as expanding to meet inevitable population increases. The Temperance Flat, Los Banos Grandes and Sites reservoirs were planned in wet years as safety deposits, once higher reservoirs emptied. As the population grew larger, dams could be raised at Shasta and Oroville. Or huge third-phase reservoirs like the vast Ah Pah project on the Klamath River might give the state invulnerability from even five- to six-year droughts.

One can say what one wishes about the long-ago, canceled Ah Pah project—what would have been the largest man-made reservoir project in California history—but its additional 15 million acre-feet of water would be welcomed today.

Perhaps such a vast project was mad. Perhaps it was insensitive to local environmental and cultural needs. Perhaps the costs were prohibitive—a fraction of what will be spent on the proposed high-speed rail project. Perhaps big farming would not pay enough of the construction costs. But one cannot say that its 15 million acre-feet of water storage would not have been life-giving in a year like this.

In any case, Ah Pah was no more environmentally unsound than is the Hetch Hetchy Project, without which there would be no Silicon Valley today as we now know it. One cannot say that hundreds of millions of public dollars have not gone to environmentalists, in and outside of government and academia, to subsidize their visions of the future that did not include food production and power generation for others. They are no less subsidized than the corporate farmers they detest.

One of the ironies of the current drought is that urbanites who canceled these projects never made plans either to find more water or to curb population. Take the most progressive environmentalist in Los Angeles and the Bay Area: The likelihood is that his garden and bath water are the results of an engineering project of the sort he now opposes.

Fantasies

The state and federal water projects were envisioned as many things—flood control, hydroelectric generation, irrigation and recreation. One agenda was not fish restoration. Perhaps it should have been. But our forefathers never envisioned building dams and reservoirs to store water to ensure year-round fish runs in our rivers—a mechanism to improve on the boom-and-bust cycle of nature, in which 19th century massive spring flooding was naturally followed by low, muddy, or dry valley rivers in August and September.

Engineering alone could ensure an unnatural river, where flows could be adjusted all year long, almost every year, by calibrated releases from artificial lakes, ensuring about any sort of river salmon or delta bait fish population one desired. One may prefer catching a salmon near Fresno to having a $70 billion agricultural industry, but these days one cannot have both.

Releasing water to the ocean in times of drought was not the intention of either the California State Water Project or the Central Valley Project. Again, it may be a better idea than what the old engineers had planned on, but it is predicated on the idea that those living in Mendota or working in Coalinga are an unfortunately unnatural species, at least in comparison with river salmon and bait fish.

Population

Even with drought, cancellations of dams and diversions of contracted water to the ocean, California might well not have been imperiled by the present drought—had its population stayed at about 20 million when most of the water projects were canceled in the mid-1970s. Unfortunately the state is now 40 million, and growing.

Illegal immigration—half of all undocumented aliens live in California—has added millions to the state population. And agriculture is a key route for Mexican immigrants to reach the middle class.

Either the state should insist on closing the borders and encourage emigration out of state to no-tax states (which is already happening at a rate of about 1,000 to 2,000 people per week) or it should build the infrastructure and create the job opportunities to accommodate newcomers in a semi-arid landscape. That would mean that the vast 4 million- to 6 million-acre west side of California’s Central Valley remains irrigated, and that water continues to be made available to a 500-mile dry coastal corridor to accommodate a huge influx of immigrants.

Is it liberal or illiberal to ensure that there will be no new water for a vast, new San Jose south of San Jose, or that there will be prohibitions on immigration and population growth that would halt a new San Jose?

Perhaps the liberal position would be for Silicon Valley grandees to relocate to the wet and rainy Klamath River Basin, where it could grow without unnaturally imported water from the Sierra Nevada. In a truly eco-friendly state, Stanford and Berkeley would open new satellite campuses near the Oregon border to match people with water.

One reality we know does not work: deliberate retardation of infrastructure to discourage consumption and population growth, in the manner of Jerry Brown’s small-is-beautiful campaign of the 1970s. Ossifying the 99 and 101 freeways at 1960s levels did not discourage drivers from using them. It only ensured slower commute times, more fossil fuel emissions and far more dangerous conditions, as more drivers fought for less driving space.

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.

One theme characterizes California’s attitude about water. Liberal orthodoxy is never consistent. While it may be seen as progressive to champion river and delta restoration or to divert reservoir water for scenic and environmental use, or to discourage more development of agricultural acreage, the results in the real world are hardly liberal.

The poor and the middle classes usually bear the brunt of these policies in terms of reduced job opportunities and a slower economy. Exemption from the ramifications of one’s ideology characterize what can only be called a rich man’s utopian dreams: divert San Joaquin River water for fish, but not Hetch Hetchy water that supplies the Bay Area; talk of bulldozing almond trees, but not golf courses from Indian Wells to Pebble Beach to the Presidio; ensuring there is less water to poor foothills and Westside communities, but not pulling out the lush gardens or emptying the swimming pools of those who live in La Jolla, Bel Air, Carmel Valley, Woodside and Presidio Heights.

To paraphrase Tacitus, they make a desert and call it liberal.

Victor Davis Hanson is a Martin and Illie Anderson senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. This article first appeared on his Works and Days site.