Oroville dam and its out-of-control spillway dramatize California’s sudden water turnaround this winter. The rains continue, and about 7 inches are predicted this week in the Sacramento Valley. The six-year drought is over. “At least for now,” say Californians. Like other Americans, they greet any unusual weather event by affirming climate-change awareness. In pouring rain or baking sun, the reaction is reflexive and identical.
Not surprising. For years, state and federal officials have linked global warming and drought. In Feb. 2014, Pres. Barack Obama hopped off Air Force One in California’s central valley, posing with Gov. Jerry Brown and Sen. Dianne Feinstein for news cameras in barren fields on the way to a Palm Springs golf date.
“The planet is slowly going to keep warming for a long time to come,” Obama intoned. “We’re going to have to stop looking at these disasters as something to wait for. We’ve got to start looking at these disasters as something to prepare for, to anticipate,” he swooned, when what was going on was no disaster at all, just California and nature doing their cyclical things.
A disaster would be an Oroville dam burst and consequent flood.
Oroville has triggered the climate-change drumbeat again. “Extreme weather driven by climate change is placing substantial stress on America’s aging infrastructure,” is how Fortune magazine puts it. “Older dams may not be designed to deal with the severe weather patterns California has experienced because of global warming,” the New York Times declares. “The days of predictable weather patterns are gone. Climate change has taken hold,” adds the director of Sierra Club California.
How do we get out of this mental box, incorrectly fusing two issues, climate change and water provision?
California rainfall is extremely uneven. No responsible researcher disputes the recent drought derived mainly from natural climate variability. California faces water allocation and pricing problems, not a shortage. Just finding capital budgets and able civil engineers to keep the state water system intact and in top condition going forward will be a Promethean challenge.
This is not to wave climate change away. The Industrial Revolution has allowed world population to rise from 700 million to 7 billion. To multiply and to survive, humans have blown and are blowing vast quantities of carbon into the atmosphere. The probability of atmospheric disequilibrium is established and possibly vast. There are too many people on the planet. But seven billion inhabitants of some 200 nations have no plans to curb their material appetites. The consequences for water supplies and much more could be devastating… someday.
Climate politics are sharp-edged and uncompromising. Liberals see the issue as more important than race relations, gun control, terrorism, or Supreme Court nominations, according to Scientific American. A widely held critique of capitalism indicts the First World for hogging resources at the expense of the global poor. Progressives think turning bountiful rivers back to nature and endangered-species hugging is holy work; the right wants to build reservoirs and dams willy-nilly. Environmental religionists and their adversaries fight endlessly in court. All of this complicates sound water policies.
California water arrangements are by any measure complex. Some 1,300 local water districts — some with shady claims — oversee water delivery and tradeoffs. Vested interests are powerful. Private well water and groundwater conflicts abound. Washington controls interstate water and the immense Colorado River system, and the Environmental Protection Agency seems to have a hand in everything.
Gov. Jerry Brown and the California water board will soon decide whether mandatory restriction orders will be eased or lifted. Greens oppose relaxation, fearing that public alarm and conservation will fade, but most California voters hate seeing their lawns, gardens, and golf courses die. California’s water-hungry population has grown from 10 to 40 million since 1950.
Only about 15 percent of California’s water use is residential. In the Bay Area and Southern California metroplex, however, it soars to 60 percent, mostly for landscaping and pools. Farm water comprises about 80 percent used in the state. California agriculture’s substantial $40 billion contribution to the economy is nonetheless less than 3 percent of its state GDP. Rural California counties comprise a potent voting bloc in the state legislature and Congress but less so every decade.
Partisan conflict and misinformation compound California’s perennial demand and supply problems. A climate-change fixation obscures Oroville’s object lessons about water provision. State spending priorities and obligations lead to deferred maintenance. As a result, the colossal, life-giving hydraulic system built in the 20th century grows more difficult to fund, operate, and sustain each year. The cost is yet to be reckoned.
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