Water Politics and the Art of Legacy-Making

20 Aug

A few months back, we noted that California was a state in serious need of a vision. Considered ungovernable by some, the Golden State has no shortage of problems. Governor Jerry Brown is weathering a slow recovery from a severe economic downturn, and a policymaking system that is often beholden to the whims of a disjointed electorate. These significant hurdles tend to complicate the task of legacy-making. In spite of this, Governor Brown has decided to stake his gubernatorial claim to fame on the promise of two massive infrastructure projects.

The Governor has decided that high speed rail and securing water supplies in the Bay Delta are the two multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects that will help set California on the right path. The high speed rail project has been analyzed, ruminated on, and pontificated to death (including by us a few months ago) – so we’re throwing in our two cents regarding the water project.

First, it has become abundantly clear that the water conveyance system that feeds California’s economic engines has been in trouble for decades now. The state’s major water supply is just one big earthquake or ARk storm (that’s “Atmospheric River 1,000”) away from total collapse. In addition, California’s population growth and increasing water demands have degraded the Bay Delta’s fragile ecosystem.

Thus far, these problems have been addressed with studies, lawsuits, a lot of talk, and some clever slogans. All manner of Californians have been incensed by the inefficiencies and uncertainties that the current system has caused. Still, in 1982 when a peripheral canal was proposed to address the same issues we face today, it was shot down by voters.

Now, state and federal authorities have announced plans to build two 35-mile tunnels that will transport water from the Sacramento River to the head of the California Aqueduct near Tracy. The $14 billion pipelines would help restore more than 110,000 acres of new fish and wildlife habitat while securing the state’s fresh water supply from natural hazards like earthquakes, floods, and sea level rise. Funding for construction will come from revenues generated by the water agencies that will directly benefit from the project. In the end, if all goes as planned, the fresh water supply of 25 million Californians and more than one million acres of farmland will be secured.

This isn’t to say the project isn’t without controversy. Some farmers in the Sacramento River Delta have voiced their opposition to the pipeline, while environmental groups are wary of the proposal’s lack of specificity. Still, this represents one of the few recent examples of visionary leadership in the state that Sarah Palin loves to hate.

Part of the visioning and planning process includes anticipating growth and mitigating against catastrophe. The pipeline project presents an opportunity to address issues on both these fronts. In addition, the infrastructure upgrade promises sustainability in the state’s water supply as well as ecosystem restoration.

If Governor Brown manages to pull this off, it will be one of the signature achievements of his career. It looks like we’ve got the vision. Do we have the will?

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