CA Drought Makes Great Political Theater, But What We Really Need is Action

California Republicans are grasping at straws. Governor Jerry Brown sounds parched. A crippling drought will do that to you.

Of late, the GOP has unpacked a new-old new message. Democrats are to blame for the drained reservoirs, low-flow rivers, withered vines, and desiccated orchards; its environmental policies are responsible for the state's bone-dry conditions.

Trying to rally what's left of its base in the Golden State, where less than 30 percent of voters call themselves Republicans, and particularly focusing on the Central Valley, one its remaining strongholds, strategists are trying to turn up the pressure. They even flew in House Speaker John Boehner to add muscle to their claims. The Ohio pol did his part, declaiming: "When you come to a place like California, and you come from my part of the world, you just shake your head and wonder what kinds of nonsense does the bureaucracy do out here? How you can favor fish over people is something that people from my part of the world never understand."

Sure they would. Ohioans have readily employed the Endangered Species Act to protect such aquatic species as the pugnose minnow, spotted darter, and lake sturgeon, as well as their riparian and lacustrine habitats; in doing so, they have shaped some important economic realities in the Buckeye State. Residents there know, as do their Californian counterparts, that this vital piece of federal protection not only is nonpartisan but that a Republican president, Richard Nixon, signed it into law in 1973.

That said, Boehner, and those for whom he is flaking, are more interested in optics than history. More compelled by what they believe are the images and sound bites that might make them more competitive in the 2014 House races. In the Central Valley, they're hoping that bad news on the (cracked) ground will translate into good news in the voting booth.

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Governor Brown appears worried about that calculation. In Mid-January, he formally announced what nature had proclaimed three ago: California is in a serious drought. At the end of the month he announced a bold if odd resolution: He might mandate the transfer of water out of currently flush Southern California reservoirs back to those northern areas in dire straits.

This was also a bit of political theater, for his assertion played to longstanding NorCal animosities toward what it perceives as the profligate Southland. It suggested as well that the governor, with a wand-like wave, could sweep acre-feet of water to places dry and dusty -- not a bad halo to wear in the run up to the 2016 gubernatorial elections. And if with this magical clout, and transferred gallons, he could wet down restive Republicans in the Central Valley, all to the good.

But Brown cannot fully pull off that trifecta because it does not fit the facts. Consider the per-capita water consumption in Brown's capital city: Sacramentans daily use three times the water that Angelenos consume (and the City of Angeles has ratcheted down its water intake such that it employs the same amount it did in 1970).

Then there is Big Ag. It is the single largest consumer of water in the state, sucking up an estimated 80 percent of our annual flow -- yes, there are great water savings to be made, and the low-hanging fruit is located in the Central Valley.

Oh, and about the governor's notion that water can be returned to its upstate sources. If he meant that literally, he should know that it is impossible to reverse the movement of water south, either by the massive pumps that push water up and over the Tehachapi Mountains or via the other canal systems that bring water into LA. (On the off-chance that Brown needs reminding, the state has no authority over two essential sources of our water, the L.A. Aqueduct, which drains the eastern Sierra or the Colorado Aqueduct, which pipes Rocky Mountain snowmelt to SoCal spigots and taps.)

What is possible, though Brown did not say so, is that he might negotiate with Metropolitan Water District (WMD) to hold some of its senior-right water resources in northern reservoirs should the "Mega Drought" tighten its grip. Whatever the qualifications, Brown's staff the next day scrambled to retract his statement.

Yet even as the Governor's Office went into damage control, it is worth considering the larger implication of his ill-chosen words. Angelenos have known for a long time that water imports from the western slope of the Sierra would in time diminish in flow and rise in cost. This understanding lies at the core of local codes requiring new building to utilize low-flow technologies and to capture runoff on site; and the establishment of incentives to tear up lawns and replace with drought-tolerant plants, shrubs, and trees. We need to use less, a lot less. We need to conserve more, a lot more.

That message is critical in this era of foundation-cracking aridity. Reports of the almost-waterless snowpack in the higher elevations of the Sierra Mountains, the lowest in 50 years, coupled with the news that this year the state received the least amount of rain since 1850, come on the heels of new research suggesting that the place we call California has a history of decades-long droughts.

Listen to Scott Stine, who has been coring trees and tree stumps for years. On the basis of this research, the Cal State-East Bay geographer has concluded that the last century in California has been among the wettest in seven millennia. Should the current drought stretch out for ten or twenty years (which would make it a fairly minor one, compared to the one that lasted 240 years, from 850 to 1090 - now that's mega), the state, and particularly its agricultural sector, would be very hard hit.

"We continue to run California as if the longest drought we are ever going to encounter is about seven years," Stine warned MSN News. "We're living in a dream world."

It's (past) time we woke up.

About the Author

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and author of numerous books, including "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy"
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