Who told him?

This op-ed in the Orange County Register was helpful.  I can understand most interest-based positions, like people in the Delta thinking that through-Delta conveyance will be an implicit guarantee for their levees, or homeowners wanting to pretend that aging water mains will last forever or cost nothing to replace.  So if you’re a water contactor or an urban water user, I can take a rough guess at your position on water.  But I have a real hard time understanding water positions based on mainstream conservative/liberal ideologies.   They aren’t usually responding to a detailed water landscape.  They’re responding to imaginary things (Reisner for the liberals; FoxNews for the conservatives), so they say things about water that sound crazy to people who know about water*.   Anyway, I’m pretty sure I’m the demon liberal in that op-ed, so it was good to understand his picture of me.  My dear readers, please don’t be shocked when I tell you that it is not a perfect match for my actual beliefs, here in the intersection of Liberal and Water.

This purposeful drying up of the San Joaquin Valley is part of a “green utopian experiment,” House argued. Since 1992, state policy has been pulling more and more water out of agricultural uses and diverting it to environmental protection. “They just keep coming at you.”

Environmentalists couldn’t care less about the smelt, a little bait fish. They will use any species or any excuse to shut down water resources to people and the farms that feed people. Environmentalists love doomsday scenarios, which give them the opportunity to control water (or land) to achieve their real goal of limiting growth and constraining the human use of nature. They want people to be crammed into high-density human islands and the rest of the land preserved under tight government control.

First things first.  Actually, I care about the smelt itself.  I don’t expect to see one, but I don’t have to see a fish to know that it is there, living a busy fish life and adding darting little glints of life to marshy sloughs.  I want the creatures of our world to be thriving on their own terms, because that’s how it was before people started messing with it.  When I hear that species are threatened, I want to know why humans had to go breaking something, and what good we got for the trouble we’ve caused to the beings around us.

Attributing doomsday scenarios to environmentalists is another interesting twist.  Seems like lots of people in water politics have done that recently.  I bring up severe climate change impacts to suggest that we would prefer a planned transition to much less California ag to an unplanned freefall.  I also invoke great big floods and old levees to say that the Delta won’t remain as is for long, and to promote my view that we should not rely on it for drinking water (and that people shouldn’t trust their lives to a Delta levee).  But I’m a mild optimist compared to people who are trying to eke political gain from drought and pumping water restrictions in isolated areas of the San Joaquin Valley.   Those are the people saying things like “dust bowl”, talking about a food crisis, desertification, and dead orchards.  They’re the ones who have to convince voters that a fairly normal agricultural year was so horrific that a Peripheral Canal is necessary.

Mostly, I wanted to object to that last sentence about cramming people into high-density human islands with the rest of the land under tight government control.  Well, of course I want that, but he’s forgetting the working landscapes aspect of California.  As a good hippie, I also want to eat local produce.  Which means I want local farms.  A lot of them, actually.  Since I’m so urban and effete, I’d like to see those farms worked by people who live in adorable towns that I can drive through along the 99.  I’d like to see farms that can keep a stable income for farm families, and support farmworkers in a lifestyle that I would recognize as first world.   Because I’m such a bleeding heart, I’d even pay more for my food if it accomplished those two things.  Seriously, Mr. Conservative-thinker-who-is-describing-an-environmental-despot, I have bigger plans than Urban Arks in the midst of Untouched Habitat.  When we shaded the maps for the Green Utopia, we definitely colored in Hippie Organic Farming, and lots of it.

I had one other big objection to the op-ed, because this just kills me.

Maybe it’s telling that this “era of limits” nonsense is taking hold again as the state prepares for a possible return to the governorship of Jerry Brown, who first put these dubious ideas into practice during his 1975-83 administration.

The concept that we’re in an era of limits is nonsense to this guy?  You know, I fault the old-school engineers for over-reliance on concrete, but actual engineers and scientists don’t ignore data the way ideologues do.  I’m sure that I wouldn’t agree with everything someone from the State Water Contractors is promoting.  But if we sat down and looked at overdraft in the west Valley, they wouldn’t pretend to me that subsidence isn’t a problem.  They wouldn’t say there is no limit to what you can pull out of an aquifer, that the ground isn’t falling.  They wouldn’t say that the falling ground isn’t cracking the Delta-Mendota Canal.  They are real sure about the costs of changing run-off patterns and losing snowpack. 

Which is why ideologues aren’t real interesting to people in the field.  People who’ve learned a whole lot and put a lot of time into protecting their interests in this complicated system can’t believe an ideologue that contradicts their experience.  Even the strokes from hearing someone confirm your biases don’t feel that good when the same person talks crazytalk in the next sentence.  It is hard enough to talk to laypeople about Water.  Talking to laypeople who are trying to cram the whole topic into some other arbitrary framing is that much more dissonant. 

*’The problem is cotton in the desert!’ or ‘We will starve without Chinese carrots!’  Both are completely unrelated to anything that happened in California ag in the past few years.


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11 responses to “Who told him?

  1. Can we readers take from this post that a through-Delta solution is in your view untenable? Even one using the billions of dollars that alternatives would use?

    Don’t all alternatives, short of not exporting water south, require lots of money and assumption of risk?

    One hopes that everyone understands that risk is an intrinsic part of pretty much anything done with big water in California. Agreed that lots of people try to obscure that fact.

    Yes, it requires a lot of empathy to see that little silvery fish swimming past the graveyard as something worth saving.

    People who have experienced losing a loved one should try to imagine that there will soon be a moment when they are confronted with their contribution to the extinction of a species.

    That is the only way to be empathetic in this matter, and the only way to think about what the alternatives are for real and speculative policy makers alike.

  2. onthepublicrecord

    I’ll admit that I’ve kept a distance from the Delta, so I can’t say that my opinions are based on proficiency with all the reports that have been done on the Delta. But yeah, I’m not a through Delta proponent. We’re moving into a climate with much more variability than we’ve experienced and I don’t want the state to take on that kind of risk. Not with storm surges, higher sea levels, big floods all coming our way. I think a Peripheral Canal (big or little) can be engineered to alleviate more of that risk than any through Delta option can. Right now I’m neutral about a big or little Peripheral Canal.

    Sorry; I know that’s not what you’re working towards. But that’s where I’ve ended up.

  3. No need to apologize.

    Lately I have been working on a lot of through-Delta speculative work, it’s true. But I also have a catholic view of the situation that is basically the same as your’s. My non-negotiable position on the Delta’s future is that it be occupied by people as well as plants and animals, and that it not abandoned to the processes of bankruptcy and climate changes.

    If through-Delta comes off the table, I will throw my inestimably marginal support behind a canal. A canal, at least in its beltway-like position, has the potential to help manage in-Delta water flow and quality close to just where it needs it. A tunnel doesn’t. So if one cares about smelt even while facing a future “thievery” of Delta water before it gets there, then push hard for a canal that is designed to inject water back into its waterways as it goes around.

  4. Mr. Kurtz

    You are right to observe that the liberal/conservative dialectic is the wrong one to use in categorizing beliefs on how to have a modern, healthy economy that does not destroy our natural resources. Some of the most progressive and thoughtful players (like the EDF) with excellent environmental credentials, favor free-market/property rights/externality-pricing positions that would make any Cato Institute economist smile. (I am not talking about the phony industry-stooge groups, that simply shill for a corporatist worldview.) Some of the hard-core “greenies” believe California should not use any water to produce products for export, and should not consume products sourced elsewhere. They seem to believe in creating a purist gated community, consisting of a much smaller population consisting of none but of like minded folks. Ecologists reading Hayeck, and liberals acting like reactionaries. I think if we focused more on the world-vision we wanted, and less on the means to get there, the discussion would be far more useful. Express and agree on a vision. Let the technocrats do the worker-bee business.

  5. Good post. What interested me about your link was that the OC Register lifted the piece word for word from the dramatically named Calwatchdog.org — a publication of the “Pacific Research Institute,” a lobby group that reflexively tags just about any water publication accessible by Google with anti-federal, anti-ESA sentiments.

    The Register identified the author’s association with “Calwatchdog” and the “institute,” but did not label the article as a reprint. This, as minor as it might sound, gave lobbyists unfettered access to a “real” newspaper. It’s not an op ed piece. It’s free advertising.

  6. onthepublicrecord

    Really? I know so little about how newspapers work. I assumed that the author submitted it to the Register.

    For you to consider something an op ed piece, would you want it to be written exclusively for that purpose?

  7. Absolutely. Op ed page editors should be among the most seasoned and rigorous in any real news organization. In commissioning pieces, they talk through a subject, develop the piece with often non-journalists, then print the article along with a tag describing the writer’s associations.

    Real op ed pages generally counterbalance a piece from one point of view with another from the opposite. They are often also replicated the same day and for weeks afterwards. During the water bill debate, one saw the same piece by Mark Gold, originally done for the LA Times, bounce around many California papers subscribing to the Times’ news feed. But it is highly unorthodox to have a lobbying organization print the same article the day of the publication under its own banner. In this case, the non-Register URL is:


    Elsewhere the Pacific Research Institute lists it on its news page as a Register piece. It’s circular, and it stinks, like a perfectly shaped turd.

  8. onthepublicrecord

    Good to know. I would never have thought of that angle. Does this mean I can’t go mailing the Bee old posts of mine and hope they’ll run them?

  9. No. I’m sure you can mail whatever you want. I’ll subscribe to the Bee when it publishes you.

  10. *is enlightened*

    I never would have made the link from op ed page to lobbying organization. Thanks.

  11. Just a note to add that conservation cum environmentalism is precisely what converted me from young Republican to adult liberal.* I never understood why conservatives were supposed to valorize the waste of resources, and I spent enough time in the Everglades as a kid to intensely value whole ecosystems, not just isolated, charismatic megafauna. The more I saw how irrational environmental issues made the American right, the less I wanted to do with it.

    * Well, that and finally appreciating that an absolutist view on abortion was stupid and unrealistic, which is not how conservatives imagine themselves