Powell on the Drought

An excellent article by Craig Powell—one of the few writers on the subject to mention the common-sense solution of needing more storage—published by Inside Publications.

An excerpt.

If you are a longtime Sacramento resident, you may be experiencing some issues in adapting to the changing regulations that now govern our household use of water. Join me on a journey through the strange new world of water conservation. It is a world that we’re likely to be in for some time, given the dire nature of the current drought and expectations that we could be in for multiyear shortfalls in precipitation.

Why is it challenging for longtime Sacramentans to get used to the idea of water conservation? Because we grew up thinking of water as an endlessly available commodity that we were free to use in any way we wished, as much as we wished, whenever we wished. The only limitation back in the day was to not be a “gutter flooder.” Leaving a hose running on your driveway while you soaped up your car was as natural as going to your mailbox each day. Washing down your driveway with a hose was simply being a good neighbor.

The idea of water meters was anathema to us, akin to communism to most right-thinking Sacramentans. We elevated our hostility to water meters to a local constitutional right, enshrining a prohibition against meters in our city charter until the state legislature passed a bill overriding us. Many of us have never seen a water meter before in our lives (I’ve seen pictures of them), but they’re coming to each and every one of us over the next 10 or so years. (Half the city already has them.)

Why did we feel this way? Because we lived at the confluence of two great rivers, and the city enjoys gold-standard-level water rights. And we knew that all Southern Californians really cared about was getting the perfect tan and stealing our water. Mark Twain was right: “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.”

The most hotly contested political battle I can recall from my youth was a titanic fight over whether the state should build a “peripheral canal” bypassing the Delta’s byzantine plumbing, a project championed by then-Gov. Pat Brown. The proposal failed. Fast-forward 40 years or so and we’re now debating a pricey (and untested) plan to build tunnels under the Delta to satiate the desire of Southern Californians for more “reliable” water deliveries, which to many is code for just more water.

But the ’60s were also the golden age of California infrastructure construction, when we actually built dams, reservoirs, hydroelectric plants, water conveyances and electrical grids (and universities and freeways) that infused Californians with an innate confidence that we were rapidly mastering the age-old California challenges of drought, flood, power needs and moving water over great distances to the state’s population centers. Our hubris about water was really born of our growing mastery of these challenges. And we mastered them with a state budget that was a small fraction of our state budget today. How did we lose our ability to build essential infrastructure? In the ’70s and ’80s, we saw the cancellation of numerous infrastructure projects that were in the pipeline, from freeways to dams, and our long retrenchment began. Valuable rights-of- way were sold off or abandoned. We’ve been living on previous generations’ infrastructure investments ever since. (Except for prisons—we’ve built dozens of new prisons since the ’80s.)

Most infrastructure work today is patchwork and crisis management. Rebuild a levee here, build a spillway on an existing dam there. But our levees in the Sacramento region are part of a 110-year old system that wasn’t designed to handle even half the load we regularly place upon them now in flood years (weirs and bypasses have been our saving grace), and they provide us with only 100-year flood protection. We haven’t built significant new water-storage capacity in Northern California since Shasta Dam (1945), Folsom Dam (1955) and Oroville Dam (1968). Construction of Auburn Dam, which offered 400-year flood protection and was authorized by Congress twice, was halted in 1979. With our retrenchment on infrastructure investment, we’ve eroded our self-confidence in our ability to master our environment and productively harness natural resources.

Our failure to upgrade levees in Natomas, the city’s top area for future growth, and the resulting de facto federal building moratorium in the area have placed a heavy burden on Sacramento’s economy, local jobs and the city’s budget for the past several years.

Retrieved April 1, 2014 from http://www.insidepublications.org/index.php/inside-city-hall/692-buckets-of-trouble

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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