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Commentary: State’s politicians talk about water but have done little

Issue Date: March 5, 2014
By Dan Walters
Dan Walters
This photo shows low water levels in Lake Oroville earlier this winter. Adding new water storage facilities, supporters say, would cushion California from the impact of future droughts.
Photo/Department of Water Resources

It's not that California politicians haven't talked about the state's uncertain water supply.

They have constantly, for decades.

It's that they haven't done much but talk.

California is beset by the worst drought in its recorded history, and its politicians, from its governor and U.S. senators down, are publicly wringing their hands about its effects and doing what they can, which is precious little, to mitigate them.

"Governors can't make it rain," Gov. Jerry Brown said recently. And that's true. But California's politicians could have learned from past droughts, including a very severe one during Brown's first governorship, and acted decisively.

However, they didn't. The state hasn't truly addressed its water needs since Brown's father, Pat Brown, was governor more than a half-century ago.

California enhanced its water supply in the 20th century because Californians had a fairly homogeneous view of how the state should evolve.

It resulted in Los Angeles' still-controversial project to pull water from the eastern slope of the Sierra, in the federal Central Valley Project that built Shasta and other big dams and reservoirs, in Pat Brown's State Water Plan that included the iconic California Aqueduct that bears his name, and in countless local and regional projects.

However, the cultural fragmentation of California that began in the 1960s manifested itself in political gridlock on any number of fundamental policy issues—transportation, education, criminal justice and, of course, water. It became a battleground for very deep divisions over the state's future, particularly how land should be developed.

Despite policy conflicts, the state's population continued to grow and become more diverse and its economy continued to change. And we experienced periodic droughts that warned us about water reliability—warnings that were largely ignored.

Just as we need state budget reserves to cushion the impact of economic gyrations, so do we need more storage above or below ground to cope with the ebb and flow of rain and snowfall, as well as more intelligent supply management and a more rational pricing structure.

The tendency of politicians, however, has been to take symbolic steps so that they can't be accused of ignoring water, but not face it squarely. Brown's recently published Water Action Plan is more a wish list of outcomes than a specific blueprint.

It's been a case study of how multiple "stakeholders" on any major issue cancel each other out and freeze an unsatisfactory status quo in the case of water, leaving the state vulnerable when another drought strikes.

While our politicians can do little to alleviate the current drought, they can damn—or dam—well prepare for the next one. And if they don't, they're not fit to hold office.

(Dan Walters is a political columnist for the Sacramento Bee, in which this column was originally published. Reprinted by permission.)

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