Before She rested on the seventh day, God created the Sierra Nevada mountains to catch a bountiful winter rain and snowfall, and a vast fertile but arid valley to the south and west. Since then California has been a story of great engineering projects to store and move water, surrounded by politics.
Let's set some background:
- California's existence as a state with 38 million people and a $45 billion agricultural industry is based on the federal Central Valley Project which dates from the 1930s and moves water from the Sierras to Central Valley ranchers and farmers, the related California State Water Project which dates from the 1950s transporting water from the Sierras down the western side of the Central Valley mostly serving some 23 million residents, and the Colorado River Aqueduct which was built by the state in the 1930s to deliver water originating in the Rocky Mountains to Los Angeles, San Diego, and other southern California cities. The first two also generate a significant portion of California's electric power.
- Each year a high pressure ridge parks itself off of the coast of California. Usually it break down, letting several winter storms through, but this year it has remained in place, pushing the storms to the north where they miss the California reservoirs and do not deliver the snowpack in the Sierras which feeds the system throughout the year. The current ridge, four miles high and 2000 miles long, has been parked in place since December of 2012. The last such occurence led to the drought of 1976-1977.
- Three years into this accelerating drought, with reservoir levels at less than 40%, some are thinking of worst case scenarios in which agriculture, which consumes 80% of California's water, will be shut down along with severe limitations on residential use and constraints on river flows which will decimate salmon and delta smelt populations. Costly and energy intensive desalination plants may be in vogue.
And the politics:
- Water politics divides the state north-south, but more significantly it divides between the coastal city dwellers/environmentalists and the inland farmers. Coastal folks are largely Democrat; inland folks, like rural people everywhere else in the country, tend to be Republican. Since all politics is local, the drought will probably not significantly impact state-wide elections, but it will put Central Valley Democrats at risk in Congressional and state legislative elections. In jeopardy are the Democrats' two-thirds majorities in the state Assembly and Senate (needed to pass tax measures), and a few House seats.
- The first salvo, a House Republican bill to override federal limits on pumping to the Central Valley from the San Juaquin-Sacramento River Delta was quickly met by a Democratic Senate bill designed to increase flexibility in regional water management decisions and support recycling efforts. The divided Congress now waits.
- The state Democrats are doing what they can without giving the farmers any more water. Governor Brown declared a state of emergency in January, cutting off water to thousands of farmers and a few central valley communities; this week the governor and Democratic legislative leaders (no Republicans invited) announced a package of $687 million in aid (available from past unused appropriations), largely for water conservation and clean drinking water projects and aid for farmers.
- At the behest of local Democrats, President Obama this week bestowed $170 million on drought-stricken California ranchers and food banks and opined how this was all due to global warming. While that appealed to the enviro-industrial complex, the reality is that many global warming models predict that California should be getting wetter. No chance goes unmet to appeal to folks like San Francisco's Tom Steyer who will donate some $100 million to Democrat "climate change" loyalists.
Meanwhile, Governor Brown has some difficult terrain to traverse if he is to make any lasting progress. His stalled $24 billion proposal to divert more Sierra water to the south by tunnelling under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta predictably has supporters in the south and opponents in the north. The companion concept of expanding reservoirs at Los Vaqueros, San Luis, and other locations makes eminent sense - except to the powerful Sierra Club which opposes inundating pristine natural settings and would like to drain the Hetch Hechy reservoir in Yosemite Park which supplies San Francisco.
To the true believers, it's not just about the fish and the oranges - there are too many people.
In this week's video Secretarey of State John Kerry explains to the Indonesians that climate change is as large a threat as pandemics, terrorism, and nuclear proliferation. One wonders what the Iranian mullahs think of that.
bill bowen - 2/21/14