California Water: ‘Crumbling Infrastructure’?

Sparse posts of late. The reasons are many. Let me toll off some of them: Facebook. Twitter. Another absorbing online project having to do with the future of California water. Work. Non-Internet recreations. Sleep. Dog-walking.

But about the water stuff: the current distraction was triggered by the Legislature’s recent passage of five bills, including an $11.14 billion bond measure, intended to refocus water policy and “rebuild California’s crumbling water infrastructure”–our governor’s preferred formulation and one widely parroted by politicos, pundits, and journalists alike.

Yes, I question the “crumbling infrastructure” line. Why? The system of levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta–an area drained and diked more than a century ago–is known to be in need of constant attention. Some of the levees may even be said to crumble. But the description doesn’t apply elsewhere. The state, federal government, and water districts have invested billions over the past couple of decades to keep their facilities from deteriorating.

“Crumbling water infrastructure” has become the early campaign slogan for the bond campaign. The phrase is standing in for a more complex reality, and one that has nothing to do with the condition of physical facilities. It’s true California’s water system seems broken. But the stress is the result of growing population, an ancient and unresolved battle for water between urban and agricultural interests, and the arrival over the past few decades of a new interest that demands water: environmentalists and fishery groups arguing on behalf of salmon and other species that have been extirpated or brought to the brink of extinction. And add one more factor: Schemes to divert Canadian rivers or the Great Lakes aside, there’s only so much water to go around in California.

One thing that’s struck me as I’ve pored paragraph by paragraph through the bond measure is that we’ve been here before. Just one for-instance. Back in the 1990s, there was a grand negotiation involving the state and federal government and all the interests, including environmentalists. Eventually, the process became known as CALFED–that’s pronounced “cal-fed” and has nothing to do with newborn beeves. In August 2000 CALFED produced a behemoth set of agreements, principles, legislation and environmental studies, all designed to do the same thing the governor and Legislature say they’re doing now. CALFED was to enhance the state’s water system by building more reservoirs, better managing groundwater, and figuring out better ways of moving water from north to south without killing the Delta.

But the consensus that built CALFED disintegrated. Neither the federal nor state governments delivered promised support. The parties to the deal backed out as prospects for progress on any of the basic issues dimmed. The new state legislation specifically supersedes CALFED. Except for that act–killing a moribund program–you wonder how much the new laws will accomplish. Important components are widely denounced, the state’s in no shape to take on the increased debt, and neither are the voters in a mood to write big checks to bureaucrats. And the political climate for the water bills seems simply poisonous: the bills were written virtually in secret, the bond has been faulted for being chock-full of earmarks, and only a small minority of voters express approval of the Legislature or the governor.

What’s next, then? It would be nice to believe some sort of open process could result in solutions that could win support from most of those affected, that would be feasible, and that would be investments in the state’s future. There’s talk of an alternative bond measure that would be much more precisely targeted than the one the Legislature approved. That could be a start, because I would guess that that’s the only way the voters approve a water bond in 2010. And if no money is approved, then California’s looking at another still-born attempt at tackling its water problems.

3 Replies to “California Water: ‘Crumbling Infrastructure’?”

  1. I also question government’s intention of spending massive sums of cash to fix any “crumbling infrastructure.” Not because it doesn’t necessarily need it. But because, if and when they do get it fixed, they don’t appropriate the money to keep it properly maintained and from going into that crumbling state again. They don’t even freaking acknowledge this aspect of it. (Same for public schools. Sorry.)
    I’ve been following your work on this massive project. Amazing. Very impressive. I hope it’s getting some attention at the Statehouse.
    Dan, I think this is the first time I’ve seen beeves used in a sentence. Inspiring.
    P.S. If you ever do get that pipeline from Lake Michigan, go for Sheboygan and not Whiting as the starting point.

  2. You're right about the maintenance part. We've adopted deferred maintenance as our default mode. That means no maintenance at all. I've had occasion to go on long bike rides in France a couple of times, and one of the items that American cyclists remark on is in what great shape the French roads usually are. There are exceptions, of course. But generally speaking, even the more out-of-the-way rural roads are in excellent shape, and it's because they're meticulously maintained.
    I actually do have a former colleague who works in the governor's office who wrote to tell me the staff there has been looking at the map I put together. Kind of neat, though I don't expect they'll agree with me on much.
    And: You have to work in beeves wherever you can.

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