What a fantastic question. Dude, thanks.

Mr. Mark’s question is perfect; interesting topic and I can speculate wildly. Thanks. He asks:

Okay, here’s a philosophical one I suppose. Just asking for pure speculation on your part, wild extrapolation into the future. I believe that in the current — and likely future — political climate in California, the chances of any of various things that I would term “completely ridiculous” coming to pass, e.g. raising the level of Shasta Dam and flooding the Upper Sac for miles up towards Dunsmuir, or the construction of the proposed Auburn Dam, are extremely unlikely; at least I want to believe that this is so.

On the other hand, and this is my question, do you personally believe there is any remote chance that, say, in the next 30 years, the political/social climate in California might be such that one of any number of what I would term “ridiculously great things for the environment” might actually come to pass? To take a specific example, do believe that the water which is currently stolen from the Trinity watershed and sent over into the Sac Valley will ever be allowed to flow down its natural course to the Pacific? Is there any chance that something this obvious could become a priority for the body politic in California? What would it take for this to become reality? There are many other examples, of course, but this one has been on my mind lately, for some reason or another.

I don’t know, man. Last year salmon returned to the Seine, and just this week, the San Joaquin River re-joined the Pacific for the first time in 50 years.  Those are pretty outrageous things, yet both happened.  So it is possible.

I agree with your guesses about what is likely in the short term.  I don’t expect CA to build any big storage, primarily because it is expensive for very little yield.  The only big project that I see as possible is a Peripheral Canal (perhaps the small one the Planning and Conservation League is saying should be studied), and that’s because I simply cannot imagine Southern California letting their water supplies depend on weak Delta levees indefinitely.  For the next five to ten years, being broke will be a good line of defense against big marginal water projects (and all remaining dam sites are marginal.  If they were good, there’d be dams on them already.)

But what about prospects for the long run?  In favor of outrageously good things for the environment:

New governor next year might remind the state that we’re Democrats, and proud to be environmentalists.  He could set a new tone, and I’m encouraged that Jerry Brown’s been pretty active on forcing cities to incorporate greenhouse gas mitigation into their general plans.  The agencies might be a whole lot different under a Democratic governor.  Schwarzenegger hasn’t been as bad as he might have been, more erratic than consistently destructive, but if you remember, wild-eyed crazy enviroguy Jonas Minton was a deputy director in DWR during the last Democratic administration.  So there’s precedent for the agencies to be a whole lot different.  Eight years of an environmentalist governor could start a lot of trends in motion.

If you want to know what drastic project might happen in thirty years, the time to start looking at rumors and crazytalk is now.  I’ve come to believe that big shifts take twenty years from being crazytalk to institutionalized.  Pipedream grad student seminars are a good place to look; when those poor saps are broken upper managers, they can put their ideas in place. 

I think generational succession will boost the state’s environmentalist thinking.  I’ll be glad to see the single purpose engineers retire out of the field.  I mean, I love the square old guys, but they were never flexible thinkers, you know.  They want to optimize One Thing, and overbuild while they’re at it.  I think the Kids These Days have more capacity to hold multiple goals in their heads and more willingness to try different strategies.

Neutral, but possibly influential:

We’re in a turbulent period and I cannot predict the alliances any more.  If anything, I’m expecting to see more “every man for himself”, and less of agriculture or urban coalitions acting as a block.  This may mean that you aren’t going to see “ag” determine policy for much longer, since they’ll be squabbling amongst themselves.

Against the possibility of extravagently wonderful environmental restorations:

We’re about to be poor.  Much poorer.  We were optimized to the old climate and living off mined wealth.  With both those ending, a whole bunch of things are going to get more expensive in tandem (gas prices, water prices, sewage prices, firefighting costs, food costs, moving goods, cooling costs in summer, moving seaside infrastructure), although probably not communications, electronics and health costs.  But people will see more of their income go to daily non-discretionary goods.  They will feel (and be) poorer, and then I think there will be a big fork in the road.  The thing that will matter is how scared they feel.

If they correctly perceive themselves as getting poorer, and our mega-policies don’t change, they will be rightly scared.  They’ll be scared of getting sick or injured.  They’ll be scared of losing their houses.  They’ll feel trapped and vulnerable and nothing will yield, not their water bill, not their gas bill, not their mortgage.  That kind of scared makes people mean, selfish and shortsighted.  They’re not going to care about making some river they can’t afford to visit look pretty.

But if our society re-installs its social net, our society could get poorer and people will yet know they will not die of untreated dentistry, that they can take their babies into the doctor, that they can send their kids to a university, they can get out of their cars and take light rail.  Being poorer is likely to mean living in smaller places and eating less meat, but it doesn’t have to mean falling out of the middle class.  If we can get on that path, then people can have the expansiveness of spirit to be stewards.  In that spirit, who knows what they’ll decide.  Maybe they’ll want to know that northern rivers run to the sea undisturbed by us.


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7 responses to “What a fantastic question. Dude, thanks.

  1. cohoho

    I was in a meeting today where the topic of NMFS BO requiring fish passage over rim dams was brought up. I’ve thought of this as a pipe dream and thought we should focus our efforts on lower hanging fruit. BUT, they’re moving forward! Why? One big reason is climate change. They’re thinking that the only decent habitat will be above those dams where the water is still cold. And they don’t seem scared off by $100+ million price tags. So yeah, big thoughts are still getting thunk.

  2. Thoughtful and empathetic post. Envy here…

    As for water and the Delta, since they are particular points of concern, a peripheral canal (or tunnel) is not the end of the place (the Delta) nor the end of the chronic problem of water.

    Same as the Westlands becoming a solar farm for folks there isn’t the end of that place, nor a solution to rising energy demand.

    We should welcome a new generation of more laterally-inclined, synthetic-thinking, Kid These Days types of people-in-the-trenches.

    Their charge, and the political talents who pave their path, will continue to be to find ways to mitigate the effects of their predecessors and present-day constituents.

  3. Mr. Kurtz

    I agree about the engineers. The profession has revitalized itself in creative ways, without trashing the reputations of the Old Guard who built Shasta, Hoover, and so on.
    However, I an not as sanguine about the population. Do not delude yourself that we are all like the educated, wealthy people who live in Kentfield or Mill Valley. Everybody is in favor of “the environment” when they don’t have to pay for it. Let the farmers pay, let the grandkids pay off the bonds, let the Feds pay…but when you start actually affecting peoples’ jobs, incomes, and lifestyle/eating choices, it’s another matter altogether. See how popular the 55mph speed limit was. The fastest growing portion of our State’s population is striving first generation immigrants who rarely visit parks and other amenities. The propaganda that passes for “science” education in most elementary schools will not turn all the children into Sierra Clubbers.

  4. onthepublicrecord

    Well, if we returned to Clark Kerr’s dream, those first gen immigrants might not have to strive quite so hard. Might free up some of their time to go to Yosemite.

  5. I’m still hopeful for the political process and getting stuff done at the State level, but not this year or next or even the year after. I’m long-term hopeful, however because of the redistricting effort that started with Proposition 11 in 2008.

    If memory serves, Schwarzenegger supported that proposition and it will probably be his most enduring legacy. Say what you will about things he’s done (or hasn’t) that affect us in the immediate future — redistricting will have a far greater impact so long as it’s allowed to move forward unfettered.

    Unlike the SF Chron, I think that new districts have to result in election of more centrist representatives who won’t have much to gain by toeing extreme party lines. Compromise and forward progress will ensue. How does this bode for “ridiculously great things for the environment”? Meh. But a series of small and well thought out policy changes might have more positive environmental impact than one “ridiculously great” showcase. The series of small steps becomes more likely the more we depolarize our legislature.

  6. I love this post. If it were a vitamin, I’d take it in the morning. However, I dissent on one point — that Schwarzenegger hasn’t been as bad as he might have been. Just as Bush was bad for the world at a pivotal point, Schwarzenegger was bad for California at an equally pivotal juncture. He started out campaigning from Hummer dealerships. While he has ended up slapping Tesla’s on the hood, he was upfront helping the auto industry go completely the wrong way, and California policy on taxing cars. He came up big for Bush (twice) at key last minutes before the election. His record on education has left California schools ranked among the lowest in the country. He rabble roused with Hannity over water and we can expect more of that GOP smelt versus hard working Americans crap come election time, I suspect. He seems to be at least in part the architect of the puppet “Latino water coalition” and he’s co-opted all of Gray Davis’s old highly compromised advisors, including Diana Kennedy and her former employer now racing commissioner Keith Brackpool. The press and the SEC have given him a pass on what looks like a blatant case of insider trading on last June’s run on Cadiz shares after an untraceable endorsement given to Brackpool and Cadiz from the governor’s office, presumably via Kennedy. By pushing his dam projects, he’s endangered the pending water legislation. OK, rant over. As for the rest, I hope you’re right.

  7. onthepublicrecord

    I know, but man. AB 32. I know that came from Pavley and Steinberg, but he didn’t kill it and it is a real serious effort. So long as AB 32 exists, Gov. Schwarzenegger wasn’t as bad as he could have been.