There is both sense and nonsense in the $1 billion drought relief package announced by Gov. Jerry Brown in a parched Sierra Nevada Mountains meadow that usually is covered in deep snow on the date Brown walked through it.
But the rationale behind the single largest part of the package is fundamentally contradictory.
Brown says California must ready for new and lasting, drier realities, then bases the most expensive part of his plan on weather patterns he previously said are most likely things of the past.
Authorized spending on all this now comes to $1.7 billion, including almost $700 million Brown proposed and the Legislature approved last year, most of it not yet spent.
It certainly makes sense to assist the most drought-stricken communities, as the package does with more than $14 million to better purify existing but polluted groundwater supplies and to truck water into those areas. No one complains, also, about more than $40 million for food and other relief for citizens and cities with lost jobs and tax revenues because local farms have fallowed many thousands of their acres.
There’s also no quarrel with the plan’s spending more than $10 million to make some existing irrigation systems more efficient. Nor with putting more than $500 million into improved capture of storm water and expanded use of recycled, purified “gray” water for irrigation and landscaping.
But Brown has taken heat over the fact that his emergency rationing plan does not force farms to cut use of surface water or lower pumping of ground water. Leaving farmers’ ground water out of the order, of course, exposes the weakness of the ballyhooed underground water regulations Brown signed into law last year — a law that will lack teeth for more than 10 years.
This all leaves plenty to question. One big question is why the plan includes only about $270 million — just over 15 percent of the package funding — for helping develop new sources of fresh water, including innovative desalination methods other than the hyper-expensive and power-sucking reverse osmosis technique now in use in a few places. Brown has not yet spoken about that.
But he has talked about why he included $660 million for new flood control projects — essentially building dams and reservoirs and lining some streams with concrete, a la the Los Angeles and Santa Ana rivers, where activists regularly push to remove concrete and return streams to their natural state.
The governor cited the danger of “extreme weather events,” caused by climate change, even though the only changes so far in California’s weather from global warming have been extended dry periods. “All of a sudden, when you’re all focused on drought, you can get massive storms that flood through these channels and overflow and cause havoc,” he said during a news conference.
But the state already has an extensive system of flood control channels and huge reservoirs designed to capture and control flood waters. Existing reservoirs are so low now there is little imminent danger they will overflow in the foreseeable future. So why not spend the money earmarked for flood control on building innovative new desalination plants, a tactic that would leave California far better off in future droughts?
Essentially, Brown and the Legislature are focusing on old technology to solve new problems, a criticism also leveled at them over the high-speed rail project, which will use 1970’s-era technology rather than exploring newer ideas like magnetic levitation and the “hyperloop” suggested by Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk.
But Brown insists, “History shows us that every time California comes out of one of these droughts, it’s with a boom-and-bust cycle of rain.” This is the same man who likes to preach that times have changed and so has nature. It has been more than 40 years since any part of the state experienced 30 days of steady rains, the sort of phenomenon that might justify massive new reservoirs.
If the current measures are a way to justify shoring up levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta area, fine, but say so. Don’t sell them as something quite different.
All of which means that as with most government spending and projects, there’s a lot to like in the governor’s measures — but also a lot that needs a harder, more critical look than the Legislature gave it while rubber-stamping the entire package.
Elias is author of the current book “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It,” now available in an updated third edition. His email address is [email protected]