I’ve seen a number of op-eds emphasizing that the people who live in the Delta have to be included in making big decisions about the Delta, and a couple more op-eds about whether people who live in the Delta are included enough. In principle, I agree with that, because their ways of life are at stake and because I believe in participatory democracy. In this case, however, I don’t want to include them if including them will give them veto power over a Peripheral Canal*.
Folks who live in the Delta are fighting like wolverines for the preservation of what they have. That makes sense. Anyone would. But what they would like to keep is behind inadequate levees that would cost a fortune to repair and maintain against the high risk of earthquake and the certainty of sea level rise. They don’t want to pay that fortune. They can’t afford to pay that fortune. They would like us to pay that fortune. You know, maybe that isn’t preposterous. Maybe we’re an affluent society that pools risk and pays to maintain niche lifestyles, so that we can exoticize visit them for our entertainment.
So here’s this thing I do, a trick I learned when I learned the Coase Theorem. I do not love the Coase Theorem the way libertarians love the Coase Theorem, but it did teach me a very useful thought reversal. The Coase Theorem proves that if a set of initial conditions hold, two parties will bargain their way to the same end point no matter which one holds the rights. In the first example I learned, you could award one neighbor the right to have very noisy parties, and make the next door neighbor buy one-hour blocks of silence. Or you could award a neighbor the right to peace and quiet and make the partier buy the right to make lots of loud noise. According to the Coase Theorem, they would bargain to the same end point of quiet time and raging parties. Whatever. I don’t especially care about that part. But since I learned the Coase Theorem, every time I hear a dispute, I flip the rights in my mind to see if anything interesting shakes out.
As it stands now, the unspoken conventional wisdom is that people in the Delta should get to live the way they do now, and everyone else in the state should pay for the maintenance to preserve their way of life, and if the state finds a way to build the Peripheral Canal (over their protests), the state or southern cities should pay for it. Essentially, the rest of the state is paying people in the Delta to be allowed to build reliable conveyance of water. But what if that were switched? What if the people in the Delta had to pay the rest of California to keep an unreliable conveyance of water? What if the remainder of the state said to people in the Delta:
You like what you have now? You insist that twenty-five million people depend on a source of water that could catastrophically fail at any moment so that you may risk your lives in your very attractive pear orchards? Fine. Keep it. But. When the Delta fails and the state can’t move water south because you insist that we all depend on your crappy levees, you pay us. You reimburse the City of Los Angeles for their losses. You indemnify the City of San Diego for the risks you insist that they bear. You pay the west side growers for their losses. You, people who live in the Delta, promise to make us whole when through-Delta conveyance collapses and we’ll forget all about this Peripheral Canal nonsense.
This sounds like crazy talk, but it is actually no more ridiculous than the example of the quiet neighbor and the loud neighbor. It is just switching and illuminating the unspoken assumptions about who deserves the initial allocation of rights. On the other hand, of course this is fucking crazy talk. There’s no way on earth that the people of the Delta, the ones who are trying to block a Peripheral Canal, could possibly indemnify the state for the catastrophic failure of the Delta. If they were asked to do so, they would rightfully cower in horror. Possibly be responsible for the paying for the damage to LA, SD and the San Joaquin Valley when the Delta fails? They should take any other option. No one could afford that. And that’s the thing. Neither can California.
*If people in the Delta are being included to negotiate things like a withdrawal strategy for the western islands, the best place to start restoring habitat, how much to pay to retire farms, good routes for the Canal, and how to transition the Delta as gracefully as possible, then of course they should have heavy influence in any new Delta governance.