Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Schwarzenegger & the Damming of California

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has unveiled his new state budget proposal and it clocks it at a whopping $143 billion. The plan is filled with "big ideas," making it a document that's been labeled as both visionary and unrealistic, and Schwarzenegger seems to be finding enemies and allies on both sides of the aisle depending on which section of the budget is being discussed. Not all of the "big ideas" are new, of course; in terms of water policy, Schwarzenegger has recrafted former Governor Pat Brown's State Water Plan, a nearly 50-year old project that has been, at various times, put in motion and halted in its tracks.

According to Dan Walters, the State Water Plan, "adopted by voters at Brown's behest nearly a half-century ago, envisioned an extensive network of dams, reservoirs and canals to capture winter rains and spring snowmelt in Northern California and convey the water to fast-growing Southern California. [...] Water policy in California has stagnated even as the state's population has grown by some 50 percent and as the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the largest single source of drinking water, has continued to deteriorate -- in part because the peripheral canal was not built when needed."

By politicizing water to the point of stagnation, California finds itself in a situation where it has to do something. Continuing to do nothing will eventually result in a moment of collapse; an area like Los Angeles has already gone way beyond the geographical carrying capacity and the people of LA are not simply going to move to relieve the stress on California's water supply. Schwarzenegger (I swear that the happiest people to see him retire will be California newspaper writers so they don't have to write that name anymore), whether one agrees or disagrees with his plan, at least acknowledges that a problem exists and that the problem will get worse, not better. He is, at the very least, getting the issue back on the political table and perhaps there is hope that some kind of workable compromise can be reached.

His proposal is to construct two new dams - one on the San Joaquin River near Fresno and the other 80 miles north of Sacramento would combine to hold 3 billion acre-feet of water - in order to build up the state's reservior of water while there's water to be had now, so when global warming diminishes the availability of water down the road from the Sierra Mountain snowpacks, Cali isn't caught wanting. The state's water needs will continue to grow, and I give Schwarzenegger credit for both recognizing this, proposing a solution, and including it in the state budget. In the face of the non-action by the federal government, it has been up to states to take a lead on green issues.

However, the question remains whether Schwarzenegger's plan is the best plan for California - both for its people and its ecology.

On the issue of water policy, Schwarzenegger has done a 180 in the past year, according to San Francisco Examiner columnist Ken Garica: "I seem to recall that our eco-friendly governor was the same person who gave a green light to a study at the behest of environmentalists on the possibility of tearing down the O’Shaughnessy Dam in Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley that brings precious water to 2.4 million Bay Area residents each day. [...] it does seem rather remarkable that the governor’s water experts would spend more than a year studying the potential dismantling of one of the West’s greatest engineering feats and then propose building two new dams under the guise of water resource protection."

Garcia argues that the plan will likely go nowhere because the State Capitol will divide too sharply for (largely Republicans) and against (laregly Democrats) the plan for it to gain momentum. It is apparently not one of Schwarzenegger's primary issues, so the thinking by Garcia is that the Governor "won’t waste precious political capital on the idea for long — especially while he’s basking in the headlines for leading the national charge on greenhouse gas emissions."

So the question of what to do will likely remain. It's a question that needs answering; as California's population continues to grow, its need for water will continue to grow. However appealing a solution it may be, we're not going to see either a population stagnation or redistribution.

What won't happen is one side winning out over the other. Neither the environmentalists nor the pro-dam crowd are likely to get a solution that they love, as neither side has found an argument that sways the other side to their position. There needs to be a compromise, as unappealing as that road might be, because without a compromise, without a plan to do something credible, we will eventually reach a point where the issue will go beyond the state's capabilities of handling its own problem and the federal government will have to step in.

And we all know how good the government is at solving water problems.

I don't know what California needs to do; I don't know of a plan that is both environmentally friendly and meets the growing needs for water. The best solution (population redistribution) isn't going to happen, and while Schwarzenegger's thinking is correct (store water now to use later), two huge new dams aren't a solution likely to improve California's ecology, and any solution that solves one problem while creating a potentially greater problem isn't a solution anyone should enter into lightly.

1 comment:

Tommbert said...

Thanks for not using the word “damning” anywhere; in reading about water resources, I am about over that particular brand of cleverness.

I agree totally with the idea of compromise in the situation as “unappealing.” (Of course, most of the time compromise is—as only one example, I’m thinking about David Brower’s compromise that led to the damming of Glen Canyon, a regret he held till the end of his life.) At the same time, the compromise that comes out of this debate might result in useful discussion instead of the partisan bickering usually seen in the Midwest where the stakes are lower because of slower growth and more abundant resources. Or it might not. The needs for water-as-resource are obvious in the West; the necessity of thinking about the problem isn’t too far off to reach a critical mass at which a large percentage of the electorate in California will take it seriously. Even though you note the potential for disintegration in the policy proposal, I think there is a great window open for solutions that address ecological and social rationality—that can only come about if lawmakers take the initiative to seriously consider long-term effects.

But there’s my cynicism, right? I just don’t know that legislators are the right people to be auditing the various threads of information that are being fed into this debate for any number of reasons most would consider to be old saws (pandering to voters for term security, backroom deals, simple incompetence, disunity in the statehouse, and so on). I’m not suggesting some kind of paternalism here by the state environmental agencies, to be sure. Nonetheless, lawmakers serve at the pleasure of their constituencies and as such will hover around voter issues more than ecological issues, at least until the two coincide. The sticking point here is that Ah-nold made this a statehouse-only issue by proposing it as primarily budgetary (i.e. political) instead of as an ecological or social issue, though it has that impetus behind it. As such, there’s not nearly as much incentive to pose the hard ecological questions, and instead be an argument about numbers, cost-benefit analysis, and all the other distasteful—unappealing?—parts of business negotiation and not compromise.

That’s why I think your point at the end—do something before the feds do it for you—is the best point of all, as it redirects the debate back into the compromise mode. Right now it’s like a bunch of kids fighting over the Nintendo. If they don’t figure out something in a civilized manner, the parents will make up their minds for them and no one will play. (Maybe that was just my house.) I don’t think that, of all states, California would want that sort of stepping-in. Right now they have the chance to take the lead and be progressive before things get nasty. But like you, I have no recommendations other than my own grumpiness towards dams, and that’s not likely to move anyone.