My main take-away from this meeting on a California Constitutional Convention? I didn’t expect to hear so much about water. The first speaker, from the Bay Area Council, listed water as the second most important crisis the state has to solve, after resolving budget procedures. The next speaker, Walters from the SacBee, mentioned it alternately first or second every time, water and the budget. It came up a couple more times, always as an important function of government that California was failing at.
Huh. I pay a lot of attention to water, but I don’t personally consider it a scarier problem than climate change, converting our energy sources and distribution to renewables, densifying cities, matching up our population to a quality of life. I’m pretty scared of the way we imprison people, actually. That strikes me as a real nasty feedback loop. I mean, yeah. Our water system poses some hard problems, but I wouldn’t have picked it as one of the two top problems in the state1. I wonder how much that public perception has to do with being in the third year of a drought.
Anyway, all that talk of the government failing at water made me wonder what the state could actually do for water systems, in a beautiful world of very good governance. These people who want the state to fix the water problems, what can they expect?
I know what they want. They want to keep using water they way they do now, not pay much more for it, and have so much faith that it will always be there when they open the taps that they never think about it again. That’s the standard they’re used to. Heh. A perfectly functioning state government couldn’t provide that. We will have less water overall, spread over more people, and the best Constitution in the world will not make it rain.2 Water will be scarcer and more expensive.
What, then, could the laws of our state actually enable? Three things: reliability, certainty and allocation. This is not the same as more water. Our old strategy was to have so much that even with sloppy management sloshing water all over, reliability, certainty and allocation were largely met. (Unless you were a salmon or smelt.) Now, though, we’re going to have to focus on what people really want.
The way to support reliability is through the budget process. Paying for O&M on our existing plumbing, putting in cross-ties and canals so that regions are served by multiple systems, instead of one that can fail and leave them stranded, reconstructing and getting rid of existing bottlenecks. Our current projects could be optimized and better controlled. Better reliability could be bought by a state government that could budget for it.
Certainty and allocation come from distribution rules, and this is where overhauling the state codes or Constitution can actually have some effect. I have opinions about what that should look like, but it is more important that people realize that this is the field of play. “Fixing water in California” does not mean “perpetuating what we’re used to”. It means making rules for who gets how much of what little water arrives and why. It means deciding who gets the shaft when flood or drought arrives, and whether there will be compensation. It means that Silicon Valley execs can know that they’ll get all of what they need nearly all the time for a lot of money. It means that growers who commit to accepting flood waters know they’ll get paid back from a community fund, so they can exist as farms the year after. It means that cities can plan for expected populations and know they’ll have a smaller but reliable amount of water for all the households they serve.
That’s what new rules could do. That’s the best a new Constitution could do. It won’t “fix the water system” in the sense of making more water exist so we can live like we have. “Fixing the water system” means meeting the underlying needs (reliability, certainty, allocation) so that people can adapt and choose.
1If your metric is human misery, I don’t think that a failed water system has the highest costs. If failure is slow, you’ll lose fish species (I don’t mean to underplay that). You’ll get the collapse in agriculture I described below, a lot of farmworkers hurting and then dispersing, people being forced out of the ag sector. Besides that, though, city people will take out their lawns, eat less meat, and live much like normal. Perhaps less industry will move here, slowing economic growth. If failure is fast, like an earthquake that breaks the Delta, that would be pretty miserable. Southern California would have a year or so to get a Peripheral Canal up and running before everyone would have to leave. That’d suck for them.
Still, for real concentrated misery, I think the prison system imposes much higher costs on California than failing water systems. Epidemics, like childhood asthma, hurt more people for longer than less-water-than-we’re-used-to will. Our collective quality of life probably suffers more from sitting in traffic than it would from never developing another drop of water. I’m glad that my field is so appreciated these days, but I don’t think I’d rank our problems the same.
2But! You say! If we have a functioning government, we could BUILD MORE DAMS!!! That would give us more water.
Nope. If less water is falling from the sky, more dams will give us MORE EMPTY DAMS. We are already catching most of what we can expect to catch. There may be some wiggle room, and local benefits for some new dams, but so long as the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act holds, there is no large untapped supply that could be caught by dams.