Donald Trump might not have gotten all the details right when he declared in Fresno in May that California isn’t really suffering from drought, but his basic point was spot on. California has been suffering from years of insufficient rainfall, but our water-scarcity problems are man-made. Quite simply, state-level officials continue to put fish above people, and refuse to build the facilities needed to ensure adequate supply in dry years.
In recent weeks, the “insufficient rainfall” part of the problem has fixed itself. A massive Pineapple Express deluged Northern California, leaving flood damage throughout the flat, agricultural Central Valley. Because California has too few dams, hundreds of billions of gallons of precious water have simply flowed out San Francisco Bay into the Pacific. Is it a question of too little water, or a government too stupid to store it when it rains?
The bulk of the state’s reservoirs are at 97 percent of their historic average, according to a Mercury-News report. The drought is essentially over, although there are pockets of drought throughout Southern California. That’s less of a problem than one would think, given that Southern California water agencies have been far more forward thinking than state officials in assuring that millions of residents in their service areas have enough water.
As in all Third World republics, nothing changes until the Great Leader says it does. And California will remain in drought conditions until the governor says otherwise. “Officially, California’s drought won’t end until Gov. Jerry Brown rescinds or revises the emergency drought declaration he signed in January 2014,” the Mercury-News explained. On the California drought website, it’s business as usual — a photo of a parched landscape and statements promoting conservation.
I’m sure state environmental officials will gnash their teeth once the emergency conservation orders are lifted, and they can no longer hector us and issue fines for overuse. “Any excuse serves a tyrant,” said Aesop, and several excruciatingly dry years provided a pretty good excuse for the zealots, many of whom seem most interested in using scarce water supplies to limit growth.
That helps explain why a total no-brainer water fix continues to be delayed by the ham-fisted California Coastal Commission, which must approve development along the state’s 800-mile coastline. I understand why state officials can’t find the cash to build more reservoirs. The Democratic supermajorities want to use the revenue to create new social programs, and it’s hard to float more debt in a state already facing tens of billions of dollars in unfunded liabilities to pay for all those six-figure public-employee pensions.
But Coastal Commission and state water board staff continue to slow down a privately funded plan to desalinate ocean water at an industrial site in Huntington Beach. The fate of Poseidon Water’s project could help determine the fate of a dozen or more desalination projects proposed up and down the state’s coastline. Water from desalination plants is more costly than traditional supplies, but it’s an important part of the mix — and it’s becoming far more cost-competitive as other water sources become costlier.
The state’s problem with the plant is that its proposed water-intake pipes will harm a small number of microscopic organisms, such as plankton, in and around the facility. The company wants to use large existing pipes that are above the ocean floor and build open-water intakes with screens. That’s similar to the system used in a recently opened plant in the northern San Diego County city of Carlsbad.
But since permitting was approved for that plant, state regulators “directed desalination plants to install wells — offshore or on the beach — or another type of subsurface intake that the state says would naturally filter out marine organisms,” according to a Los Angeles Times report. As Poseidon officials point out, the Huntington Beach intake technology complies with state laws and regulations — and these laws require subsurface intake technologies to be technically, economically, socially, and environmentally feasible. They point to a panel of scientists convened by the commission in 2015 that found that nine subsurface intake technologies were not technically feasible or economically viable for the proposed Huntington Beach plant.
The regulatory delays go on, even though we’re dealing with minuscule numbers of a tiny form of plant life. Earlier this month, I reported on a letter from three prominent marine biologists — Anthony Koslow, Eric Miller and John McGowan at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla — who criticized the Coastal Commission’s lead desalination regulator, Tom Luster, after he quoted their research during a December presentation in Ventura.
“Another key issue that argues against open intakes, this represents the decline of plankton off Southern California,” Luster said. “It represents about 75 percent since the early ’70s. It’s hard to maintain and enhance marine life like the Coastal Act requires in a situation like this and so open intakes have a hurdle to overcome.”
According to the marine biologists, Luster’s comments represented “an inaccurate understanding of our research. The figure that you presented from our paper shows that both nearshore and offshore fish communities off southern California were in stark decline as measured by two very different time series.” Their paper showed that offshore plankton shared the same fate as those at the coast.
“It is therefore not reasonable to attribute this decline to the impact of coastal development or nearshore power-plant intakes,” the Scripps researchers wrote. “We ask that you refrain from repeating your Ventura forum comments, or anything similar, as it presents an almost exactly opposite conclusion to that obtained by our research.”
Luster believes the scientists misinterpreted his statements. His point, made in an email rebuttal to the scientists, is that the plankton decline makes it tougher for the new desalination facility, not that desalination is causing the plankton decline. But the scientists responded again, noting that their research on the topic “did not detect an influence of power plant cooling water intakes on nearshore fish populations.”
This back-and-forth was big news in the small world of desalination politics, but it’s significant for the rest of us, too. It illustrates the degree to which regulatory prerogatives trump even the best science, and how ideologically rigid environmental agencies can hold up crucial projects that meet the needs of California’s still-growing population. The dispute also reminds us there are no adults in charge who can intervene in the process.
So, after years of drought, California apparently has learned nothing. Donald Trump might not know a Delta smelt from a plankton, but at least he knows a natural crisis from a primarily man-made one. It’s raining again, so Mother Nature will bail out California this year, but we can’t expect the water situation to change until the political situation changes.
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