Bad Water Bond, Vote NO, Demand Better

by Joel Pomerantz

October 16th, 2014

As a water researcher, I feel an obligation to give you the benefit of my historical perspective on this major water bond up for a vote. I’m so saddened by regional water policy that it makes me cry whole reservoirs–salty ones. (Desalination is energy intensive!)

This ‘No’ recommendation is based in great part on Marc Reisner’s tome, Cadillac Desert, about dams and western water policy which is a long read for the average citizen. If you think the below screed is too long, be glad it’s not Reisner’s nearly 600 pages. It’s absolutely essential reading for understanding the big picture.

Here (pdf) is another analysis more focused on the present than my historical one. The Neutral side is worth a read, too.

The biggest issue in the west is water because water determines land values in an arid place. This place is arid.

I know the Prop 1 bond will pass. Why? Anything that seems like it might help in a drought will pass, especially if it has so-called “bi-partisan support.” The Peripheral Canal got voted down because it happened to be on the ballot in a wet year and so people weren’t panicked, giving all your decision power to the ‘experts’ who are already bought-and-paid-for. Don’t be scared into this just because it’s a drought. There are better ways.

As much as the buzzwords—drought, bi-partisan, water storage—make it seem like this Proposition will help, it won’t help and it’s a really silly idea. Perfectly reasonable people like KQED’s science editor Paul Rogers and so many others seem to be taking this as a good idea mostly because it has wide support in the legislature. Bad reason. Truly silly bond.

There is not enough water no matter what you spend on infrastructure. While encouraging household conservation, the state continues to allow cotton, rice and other wasteful water uses (in areas with high temperatures = giant losses through evaporation) by major campaign donors who are growing for export. They can take most of the water and not even commit to conservation basics.

The contract the state has in place already for 55 years says we (the state) will provide 4.23 million acre feet of water almost entirely to hot southern Central Valley growers at guaranteed far below-market prices. There is only 2.5 million acre feet available in a good year. So any water conjured (if magic were possible) would actually cost the state even more as we are required to sell it below value.

As with many water projects in the past 100 years all over the U.S. west, the politicians promise water in literally impossible quantities (unless we divert the Columbia River, which has been considered).

This bond is an attempt, like the Peripheral Canal and Delta tunnels and many other ideas shot down by public activism, to bring the state closer to fulfilling that contract of subsidy to major ag. All the talk of groundwater storage instead of reservoir storage is supposed to sound like progress (no dams, which the public now hates). In fact, it’s a reference to replenishing the aquifers that were pumped dry by the profligate major land owners who shouldn’t even be growing in that part of the state. Why? So they can pump the aquifers again without any policy or legal limits.

This bond will cost taxpayers well over $20 billion by my estimation, if you count principle, interest, and the cost of buying water we already own and selling below cost, which this sets up.

It gives the decisions to a Commission under the control of these major political donors. We know what will happen. It has happened before many times. California’s water projects past have been the largest public spending projects ever on the planet and they have done one thing well: created more wealth for the people who already have it. They have also destroyed dozens of river ecosystems and the Delta. This is a replay of many past water fights. Gov. Brown in his previous terms, plus his father in his term as Governor have been flatly and steadfastly supportive of giant water projects that are all like this one, only in this one they have learned the lesson: set it up so that decisions can be made in a quiet room beyond the scrutiny of the public.

I’ve just read hundreds of pages on the history of dams and water projects and it stinks. I’m sure the powerful people in on this are happy to have the drought to help pass their bond, since the only other way to fund these water give-aways would be to sell electricity made by their “water project” dams, as the federal government has always tried to do (disingenuously) in its role as the main water project purveyor in our nation. With the drought, generating hydro-power to sell is becoming nearly impossible: less water in rivers means less electricity generated. Already, there’s not enough water to generate the electricity needed to pump water 3,400 feet uphill over the Tahachapies range into the L.A. basin, where lawn water conservation efforts have been a failure.

That’s right, California built, without help from federal sources, a water system to guarantee farming where there’s no natural water reliability, city growth where it’s unsustainable and did it all with a large nuke plant’s worth of electricity to pump the water uphill and with close to a thousand miles of canals. Why? Land owners give a lot of money to their campaigns. Remember, water determines land values.

The full $7bn investment of this bond, even if spent all right now, physically could not create anything major in the way of infrastructure within 15 years but it will pass because we have a drought now. The bond proposal had lots of water conservation and recycling in it, which would help much more and much sooner and doesn’t require the magic rain to come for it to be well spent money. But most of that part of the bill was removed to satisfy Republicans who had earlier refused to vote it onto the ballot.

Enough enough. This is silly.

If the public knew what goes on behind the scenes, this proposal would be quickly replaced by a couple billion for conservation and recycling, wetlands enhancement and land redistribution (yes, I said that), along with a couple billion more to set up incentives for population control in desert areas and ending farming of some crops.

One Comment to “Bad Water Bond, Vote NO, Demand Better”

  1. […] throw money around to build dams for powerful Big Agribusinesses.“) and also that of my friend and uber-water-smarty-pants Joel Pomerantz.  Vote […]

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