I blame Howard Jarvis.

I only noticed Levine’s piece speculating that the Delta was deliberately neglected to support a water grab because Zetland objected to it.  My first impression was to laugh at someone expecting a piece by Levine to be prudent and accurate.  Levine was part of the Exile, which was pretty much a hole in civilization.  Levine’s role in water journalism is going to be provocation and extreme accusations, and we’ll value it as much as we value those two things.  Which I do.  With Levine out there, I’m mainstream.

After reading as much of Levine’s post as I could before my eyes blurred, I agreed with some of it.  I’ve said before that I expect us to end up with a Peripheral Canal, either by a planned orderly process that compensates landowners and averts a southern California water emergency, or by emergency powers if the Delta collapses first.  Further, I agree with Levine’s outrage that farmers (any of them, not just Westlands) would broker that water transfer and collect a huge windfall in the process.  That’s my main objection to our current water rights system, for example.  If we are at the point where the 22 million people in SoCal need drinking water for sustenance, I’m not much impressed with the notion of paying farmers for it.*

But I have two big objections to Levine’s piece.  First, enough with the idealization of Delta farmers.  They are, in fact, charming small players with a long history in a complex system.  But so fucking what?  There are charming and picturesque communities in Los Angeles and San Diego too, some of them with quainte customs that have been there for generations.  If the numbers and stakes were equal, I’d say to flip a coin and call it done.  But they aren’t equal, and the rationales and choosing of baselines get hopelessly tangled.  So then I go by the numbers.  In the end, choosing to maintain the drinking water of twenty-two million people over the lifestyles of five hundred thousand people is the right choice.  I couldn’t make that choice if I were choosing between two equal sized farming communities.  But the thing I’d like to see more Peripheral Canal advocates do is say outright, “Yes, the Delta won’t continue as it has been, and a small segment of society will feel the brunt of it, and it is still the right thing to do.”

The other thing I want to object to is the idea that there’s been a conspiracy about letting the Delta collapse, to drive need for a canal so that oligarchs can profit.  Dude, there’s no conspiracy.  The situation is just that mismanaged and fucked up.  For example, Levine writes:

The problem has been known for decades, and the estimated cost of fixing the levees is not particularly high — between $1 and $5 billion — but the issue just never figured high on the political agenda. California saw a whole legion of governors — Jerry Brown, Pete Wilson, Gray Davis and now Schwarzenegger — cycle through without giving it much attention.

Well, that’s because until 2003, it wasn’t the state’s responsibility to fix the Delta levees. It was the responsibility of the local reclamation districts, organized for that purpose, with tax assessment powers so that the people who lived behind levees could tax themselves to pay for the maintenance of the levees they live behind**. Which they didn’t do, for the better part of a hundred years. Then, in a surprise legal decision, a judge handed the whole problem to the state, who was shocked to find itself responsible for hundreds of miles of failing levees, and has since passed one bond measure, undertaken tens of emergency repairs, created a new branch of DWR and is writing the FloodSAFE plan. The state has been working on it pretty hard, in the six years it has been the state’s responsibility.

Mistakes like that, and assuming bad motives permeate Levine’s article. Which is fine, whatever, but without them, there’s no conspiracy. There’s just a deeply fucked up situation. There doesn’t have to be a conspiracy for us to get into a deadlocked situation with unpleasant winners and unfortunate losers. There just has to be a complexifying history*** and a battle over newly scarce resources to reveal the problems.


*When I was a kid, we visited northern France and I noticed my Dad was hostile to the locals.  I asked why, and he said “Fucking French peasants.  They sold water to Jews fleeing the Holocaust.  Sold drinking water to people in need.”  He was genuinely angry, and I guess I’ve internalized some of that attitude.  When we get to a question of drinking water (which you might not think is the situation for SoCal cities), I don’t think anyone should profit along the way, especially for a resource that belongs to the state.

**Which is just more proof that most small local agencies cannot be relied on to do expensive maintenance and upgrades.  The counterforces against taxing yourself and neighbors are way too strong.  If we know it is inevitable, we shouldn’t pretend that they’ll do it until failure is imminent.   We should admit that somethings are better done by larger, more distant entities, like regions or states and have a system that takes human traits into account.

***You should read that piece and think about a simplifying collapse. I keep begging you to choose a simpler, retracted vision and then we figure out how to get there from here. But no. Y’all can’t believe in anything but a growth-based economy, when the real situation will be having two-thirds of the water wealth we now have within a few decades. What is left for me to do, besides read Kunstler and drink?

****This isn’t actually anchored to text, but it cracks my shit up that Levine came home from post-Collapse Russia and chose to live in Victorville. Victorville? I can only think that he is determined to hate wherever he lives. Well, you can find grim and seedy everywhere, if that’s what your soul needs. (I don’t actually know how I know that. I read it somewhere? If it isn’t accurate, I apologize.)


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9 responses to “I blame Howard Jarvis.

  1. CharleyCarp

    22 million people can afford to buy the property of 500k that they wish to expropriate. It’s pretty simple.

    The water might belong to the state, but the right to beneficial use is an appurtenance of the property. IANACaL, but I’d be shocked if your law was that different from ours.

  2. onthepublicrecord

    Delta landowners don’t want to be bought out. They’re angling to keep what they’ve got at state expense, and feeling pretty victimized in the process. Which is why I don’t love the pieces that dwell on their small family farm-iness. There aren’t any saints in this mess.

    The right to beneficial use has been awarded to people, but I’m not fond of that part. Or at least, I don’t think it should be the basis for wealth in perpetuity from people who didn’t have the foresight to get water rights seventy years ago. For drinking water, at least, I feel no allegiance to our current system of water rights.

  3. Levine’s style only reinforces how extreme positions on both sides are useful to their constituencies but not to a public faced with difficult, inevitable choices in need of facts. Rhetoric has always been useful that way.

    Levine of course has his counterparts on the right.

    Delta landowners are angling, but why shouldn’t they be? Several scenarios seem to be in play.

    They own property, and it is very valuable. They could be paid off and move on, or they can work through their legal strategy to preserve/restore, to what happy end I don’t really see given the imperatives or numbers of affected, or they can be allowed to develop, within reason, their asset, and stay. This asset is tourism revenue and levee maintenance cost, and the intrusions of their neighbors.

    The last scenario will require Delta landowners to relinquish water rights, existing lifestyle, essentially to change. I hope that they can be imaginative in how that could be great for them and everyone else with something at stake in what happens with their loved land.

  4. Jeff

    Would a Delta collapse cause southern Californians to go without drinking water or landscaping water? I have been told that we could cut off 100% of their Delta water and they would still be way above Australian urban consumption, and that the only impact would be dead grass. Have I been misled?

    Levine is entertaining.

  5. Interesting question – what would a Delta collapse cost southern Californians?

    Their cities would suffer, but they only get roughly 25% of Delta water exports. My guess is they will deal with it.

    Where does other 75% go? Much of it to non-agricultural places in the San Joaquin Valley.

    Forget Levine’s “billionaires” – how would poor people in Modesto, Fresno, Visalia, Mendota, etc., cope?

    Many things need to be addressed. Just like Sean Hannity’s does, Levine’s rhetorical style effectively defers all from confronting this.

  6. onthepublicrecord

    Jeff, I honestly don’t know the answer to that, but my guess is that in any year, it would depend on what they’re getting from the Colorado and the Owen’s Valley. Given that those are also variable, they might not think of Delta water as topping them off. They might think it is the stable supply they drink first. At any rate, there’s a whole lot of money between what they do now and what Australians do. (Which might be the right option. But people don’t especially like making big lifestyle changes.)

  7. Chris Austin

    I have heard that the Los Angeles Aqueduct (Owens Valley) is only providing 150,000 acre-feet, due to environmental restrictions and restoration projects.

    Metropolitan’s allotment for the Colorado River is 500,000 af, but that is a fifth-priority right, meaning the Imperial Irrigation District and the other three smaller districts get their water first – about a fifth of the flow of the Colorado River. Those are perfected water rights, so they will get their apportionment in total, even if it means there is nothing left for Southern California.

    Unless MWD makes another deal with IID. Fat chance on that, though – They have passed a resolution that there will be no more transfers of their water outside the valley. And now, with the possible reversal and invalidation of the QSA, those that didn’t want it signed in the first place are making a comeback.

  8. Dave Simmons

    One other huge problem with Levine’s story, would Westlands Farms actually profit if there was a diaster. As it is now, us farmers in Westlands are not allowed to sell water outside our district. So, would we really profit, that is the real question? Westlands does not have water storage, only what is held in San Luis Reservoir. I believe this story is really a fallacy.

    My eye’s blurred after awhile too. Mostly the incorrect facts got to me though. Almost every single paragraph has something factually wrong.

  9. Dave Simmons

    Another point is, we are not out here angling to profit in a diaster. We don’t even think that way. We are all about farming. We work hard in the hot sun to produce products. We aren’t sitting around waiting for a diaster so we can profit. That is not us. That is not who we are.