WHEREAS water districts were created to deliver water for economic growth. That mission makes them unable to do the tasks of this century, which are to wisely manage contraction and risk;
WHEREAS water districts are too close to their constituents to make difficult costly decisions that counter denial and wishful thinking that the status quo is the default;
I am always bewildered by the rightwing trope that government is ineffective. Water districts were a form of government created to turn rivers into cities and farms and holy crap did they do that. They’re still, relentlessly, doing that. Water districts are good at going along with human denial, and human insistence that the do-nothing option will continue to provide the status quo. I argue that 1. they are not capable of doing anything that counters human denial as described, and that 2. the work we face for the next many decades is not delivering economic growth, but making painful, expensive decisions to minimize loss.
I see two reasons that water districts will not be able to do the work of contraction. The first is that contraction isn’t their self-identity and they don’t want to. I mean, just look at the SJV Water Blueprint. Faced with the end of a 3-4MAF annual overdraft, rather than live within their means, the water district solution is to raise a million dollars to advocate for a ludicrously expensive plan to backfill the loss.
The second reason that water districts cannot run counter to human denial is that the directors will get recalled. Mark Arax writes about how the Paradise was never able to do effective planning.
Paradise wanted to steer its own fate, the Qualified Five were nervous about the prospect that the town’s first General Plan would bring new bureaucrats, new regulations, new taxes, and maybe even a sewer system to the ridge. Years of ugly recall elections, recalls all the way down to the Irrigation District Board, followed. Those who wanted no government feuded with those who wanted some and those who wanted more.
Most people want their district to tell them that they can keep what they have, at about the same cost. They will not pay to fix problems that they cannot see, nor to prevent predicted problems because it is human nature to believe that doing nothing will lead to more of the status quo. Board members who try to work against this denial get recalled and the effort fails. Small districts are especially vulnerable because the thresholds for recall are low.
This has more-or-less worked for the last several decades because our former climate was stable and districts only ever made one of two decisions (‘do our rates cover O&M?’ and ‘is it time for an expansion?’). Frankly, the extent of deferred maintenance says that they didn’t even make the first decision correctly. But those are the questions that districts will be facing now. Water districts in their current structure are not capable of making the decisions that we now face.