Not quite one year ago, Gavin Newsom did something that took political courage. It was also the right thing to do. He removed from one of the state’s local water boards one of the most outspoken critics of a desalination plant proposed for Huntington Beach.
Unlike critics of desalination (once referred to as desalinization, and swiftly being rebranded yet again as desalting), Newsom understands a fundamental fact: When the Colorado Aqueduct reduces its annual contribution to the water supply of Southern California from over 1.0 million acre feet to zero, and the Delta pumps stop sending additional millions of acre feet of water down the California Aqueduct, in the midst of a drought that lasts not three years, but twenty years, all the water conservation in the world will not slake the thirst of Southern Californians.
Water conservation, when pushed to the limit, does more harm than good. It raises the price of water, since the entire operational infrastructure delivering water has a relatively fixed overhead that must be paid even when quantities delivered are reduced. It results in rationing, with consequences that are glibly dismissed. When lawns and trees die, more than “culture” is lost. Life is lost. Trees and lawns are life. They filter and cool the air, they nourish the human spirit. And every place you see a lawn, what you are really seeing is water resiliency. Surplus in the water system is healthy. Bend every fraction of surplus out of the equation, and when the prolonged drought comes, the system breaks.
Unfortunately, when it comes to water, Newsom hasn’t done nearly enough. California’s farmers and inland cities, especially in the San Joaquin Valley, are already experiencing extraordinary hardship. One more dry winter, and every Californian will endure similar trauma. Water politics are complicated, and every water engineering solution generates controversy, but the cause of this predicament is simple: California hasn’t invested in increasing the supply of water to cities and farms in over 30 years.
Water is running against Newsom in the upcoming recall election, and water is winning. When state regulators recently shut down access to water for every farmer that isn’t a mega corporation with mega wells and mega lobbyists, where was Newsom? When back in 2014 the California Water Commission was authorized via Prop. 1 to spend billions to increase California’s water supply, and then, eight years later, has built almost nothing, where was Newsom?
Why won’t Newsom call an emergency conference of legislators and stakeholders, put them in a room, and tell them: “Conservation is not enough. We’re not a communist dictatorship and we’re not a banana republic. Determine what investments in new infrastructure will produce another five million acre feet of water per year for our farmers and our cities, and don’t leave until you’ve agreed on the plan.”
If water is one of Newsom’s implacable opponents this year, imagine how much more formidable an opponent water will be next year. If Newsom survives the recall coming up next month, he’ll face another recall of sorts when he runs for reelection in November 2022. He’d better hope that it rains and it pours between now and then.
It’s fire, however, that is Newsom’s even bigger opponent this year, as he fights for his political survival. And on this, Newsom has nothing to show. After the devastating fires of 2020, Newsom’s reaction was to mandate more sales of electric cars. This is idiotic posturing, not because electric cars don’t have a place in our automotive future, but because they have nothing to do with the fires currently raging through California’s forests.
California’s fires are obviously worsened in their intensity by drought conditions. But the primary cause of these fires is a century of fire suppression, combined with a perfect storm of counterproductive policies: California’s timber industry is one quarter the size it was just 30 years ago, and a punitive, time consuming, bewildering, expensive permit process prevents effective efforts at forest thinning and controlled burns. California’s forests are dangerously overgrown. That’s why the trees are dying. That’s why we’re having superfires. Period. Fact. Any other explanation is denial and deflection.
Why hasn’t Newsom challenged the firefighters union, whose leadership had the audacity to drag their members into marching with the United Teachers of Los Angeles in January 2019, to instead use its political clout to reform forest management in California? Why didn’t Newsom expand the inmate firefighter programs, instead of cutting them back?
Newsom needs to do the right thing, regardless of whether or not any particular special interest benefits or is harmed by his actions. Here again, Newsom could call an emergency conference of legislators and stakeholders, put them in a room, and tell them: “We used to manage our forests, but over the past 30 years we’ve done everything wrong. So figure out how to reengage the timber and biomass industries to thin the forests, figure out how to get drug addicts and petty thieves off the streets and back onto the fire lines, make it easier for property owners to thin their land and do controlled burns, and don’t leave until you’ve agreed on the plan.”
That would be leadership. Get busy, Governor Newsom. You would not only save your political career. You’d save California. Water, and Fire, would be your allies instead of your enemies.
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