Perhaps you have heard that Mr. Trump discussed our water issues at a rally in Fresno. His policy statements change by the moment, but I do like them as his barometer for what the crowd wants to hear. He has a genius for reducing any issue down to the purest synthesis of what his crowd wants to hear. Before he gets back to talking about himself, Mr. Trump says of the drought:
We’re going to solve your water problem. You have a water problem that is so insane. It is so ridiculous. Where they’re taking the water and shoving it out to sea.
And I just met with a lot of the farmers, who are great people, and they’re saying we don’t even understand it, they don’t understand it, nobody understands it. And I’ve heard this from other friends of mine in California where they have farms up here and they don’t get water.
I said, oh, that’s too bad, is it a drought? “No, we have plenty of water” and I said well what’s wrong and they said well we shove it out to sea. And I said why? And nobody even knows why and the environmentalists don’t know why. Now they’re trying to protect a certain kind of three-inch fish. But…
No, no think of it. So nobody even knows why. And by the way the environmentalists don’t know why. [emphasis added]
Mr. Trump’s assessment of what will please his crowd in Fresno is an assertion that the policies that are guiding State drought management are beyond reason, beyond understanding, unknown even to the practitioners of these policies. These words reassure his crowd that it is OK that they don’t understand, because State water management is objectively not understandable. So what is it that they don’t understand?
One possibility is that Mr. Trump’s receptive audience doesn’t understand how we arrived at pumping restrictions. I get that. I do. The chain of events goes: loss of habitat and bottleneck at the pumps => endangered species listing for smelt => biological opinions => upheld by courts and the National Academy of Science review => we can only pump when there aren’t any smelt near the pumps. That isn’t straightforward. It has developed over years; I wouldn’t expect anyone who isn’t a water junkie to have kept track. However, this is not beyond any understanding; professionals in the field understand it. Mr. Trump might mean, ‘it can’t be explained to me in thirty seconds’, which is not the same thing as ‘no one knows why’. It isn’t beyond reason, either. All the steps in the political processes and scientific analyses have all been incremental and upheld by our agreed upon public governance methods.
It is more likely that what Mr. Trump is reassuring his audience is that the values that guide recent water management are inexplicable. That valuing a three-inch fish is inherently unreasonable, so much so that even environmentalists “don’t know why”. (Maybe they meant to value some big charismatic fish and got accidently carried away!! It could happen!) The invaluable Mr. Fitchette expounds on a similar view, that different underlying values are plain wrong.
Now Mr. Trump is a demagogue and a good one. But the thing that interests me is that while he gets cheers from saying that “no one knows” why the farm sector hasn’t gotten a full water allotment, his own crowd isn’t with him when he says “there is no drought.” Watch these 16 seconds. The crowd doesn’t applaud. The man behinds him looks up sharply, startled. The locals know; they can see the Sierras from their homes. They saw no snowpack last winter. They know the hills didn’t green over winter. They may enjoy being pandered to for an evening, but they don’t agree when he contradicts the facts they experienced. I don’t envy them their cognitive dissonance.