I’m about to use a book I haven’t read yet to critique a plan I haven’t read yet, so I’m working from a position of strength here. On the other hand, I’ve been heavily involved in writing a completely fucking useless disaster response plan, so perhaps I already know some of what Mr. Clarke writes about in his book Mission Improbable: Using Fantasy Documents to Tame Disaster. Anyway, I haven’t read the Delta Stewardship Council’s first draft of their Delta plan, but from the commentary on it, I gather that they have so far left several sections out. They haven’t addressed financing and whether to have a Peripheral Canal and what quantity of water can be reliably delivered through or around the Delta.
Mostly, I respect them for releasing what they’ve got. They’re on an extremely tight schedule, working on an extremely complicated issue. Might as well release what they can, and get the public involved in correcting that and contributing content towards the second draft. That part is fine. The part that I don’t understand is how they’ll ever resolve the difficult aspects. I know that’s their charter, but frankly, I can’t see how they get from our current dialogue and structure to an enforceable plan for a radically different future, which is what I think is required. I have to wonder whether they’ll end up releasing a fantasy document, since I’ve seen from the inside how a well-intended disaster response plan got massaged into doing more nothing. Since I am substantially skeptical about their ability to write the missing sections (not because of their abilities, for which I have every respect, but because there are actual losers involved and the state won’t ever make that explicit), I wish they’d write a different plan.
You know what would be an awesome plan? If they said, “We don’t believe the political process can resolve Delta issues and correct them before the crisis, especially since system collapse is both imminent and potentially sudden. Here is what will happen when the Delta collapses, and how we can minimize the losses.” I know they had a finding that there is no emergency response plan for the Delta, but I don’t mean an evacuation plan. I mean a real thorough description of what happens to the entire state one and three and five and ten years out when the Delta collapses. It would be good to spell out the costs of homes, farms and jobs lost. You could have place-based chapters and describe what’ll happen in the west and east Delta for the decade after collapse. And in the San Joaquin Valley. And southern California. Or you could describe the consequences by sector: fish, farmers, urban. It’d be important to put costs on those, so everyone knows what looms ahead. We don’t talk about the cost of doing nothing enough, I believe. That would be a very interesting plan, and one that stands a substantial chance of getting used.
Three more loosely related things.
Another necessary plan:
After that UC Irvine study put the fear into me, I would also love to see a plan for falling groundwater levels in the SJV. Not a plan for “how to fix it” or “what we can do about it”, since I don’t believe that’d actually happen. I want to see a plan that says “Farms on these aquifer will see gw pumping become economically prohibitive at these levels, and in the meantime, their diesel pumps will give a few thousand more kids in Fresno asthma. Farmland will retire in this order, but these towns of farm laborers will see their drinking water supplies dry up first. We should either provide them drinking water or re-locate them. We should maintain suicide prevention hotlines for the farmers who are watching their wells fail, and think about re-training them.” If Kiribati can face their future, we should too.
A note to the staff at the Delta Stewardship Council:
Your ability to write the missing chapters is a reliable signal about your own beliefs and dissonance about the plan. If you find writing a chapter excruciating and the words won’t come, that means that you don’t know or believe what you’re writing. If you are blocked and unable to write, odds are that it isn’t your fault. Considering the mess, it is probably an accurate reflection of the knot we’re in. If you can think of plenty to say about what will happen when the Delta collapses, you could take that as a sign about what you really know.
A quote from a different disaster book:
Recently read and enjoyed Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, about the few money managers who predicted and made money off the housing market collapse. This quote resonated with me:
A thought crossed Ben’s mind: These people believed that the collapse of the subprime mortgage market was unlikely precisely because it would be such a catastrophe. Nothing so terrible could ever actually happen.