California’s Political Dysfunction

From the Claremont Review of Books:

* “California is experiencing—coincidentally—both a drought emergency and a flood emergency,” said the Department of Water Resources director. Only in CA.

When a state is afflicted by too little water and too much water, simultaneously, one might suppose that the whole point of having a Department of Water Resources is to turn this coincidence into a happy one.

* The State Water Project system remains unfinished. Since the 1970s there has been more litigating and planning than building, despite the fact that California’s population doubled between 1970 and 2020. Two recent books—Winning the Water Wars (2020) by journalist Steven Greenhut and The Abundance Choice: Our Fight for More Water in California (2022) by Edward Ring of the California Policy Center—argue that the cycle of droughts and floods owes less to capricious nature than to failed governance. The “core problem,” writes Greenhut, is that California policy has come to emphasize “boosting fish populations” over meeting residents’ and farmers’ needs. Indeed, it has come to favor water scarcity as “a means to limit growth and force changes in the way we live.” He believes that the key component of a successful policy is expanding water storage throughout the state, both above and below the earth’s surface, so that rainfall and snowmelt is preserved for future use, rather than draining into the Pacific Ocean or overflowing riverbanks.

* California presently has twelve desalination plants in operation but, despite constant warnings that the latest drought is the worst in state—if not human—history, has been notably ambivalent about adding more. In May 2022 the California Coastal Commission voted 11-0 to reject a new plant in Orange County that would have provided 50 million gallons of water a day, enough to provide for 460,000 residents’ needs. As Edward Ring noted in National Review, the Poseidon Water company had, over a 24-year period, spent $100 million on the application for the plant. Much of that time and money, he notes, produced “seemingly endless studies and redesigns as the Coastal Commission and other agencies continued to change the requirements.” Despite these efforts, and the fact that Poseidon had been operating a similar desalination plant in neighboring San Diego County since 2015, the commission’s board followed its staff’s recommendation: to reject the project for economic and environmental reasons.

* Californians, directed to make conservation a way of life, may fairly ask why responsiveness and competency cannot be made a way of government.

* A state that once amazed the world with its freeways and bridges has now wasted 15 years and $10 billion building a high-speed rail system that, according to its original directors, may never carry a single passenger. The more money the state, counties, and cities spend to prevent homeless people from sleeping on sidewalks and in parks, the worse the problem gets. There appears to be no public responsibility so basic, down to thwarting shoplifters and reckless drivers, that California government hasn’t lost the ability or will to discharge it.

* In 2018 69% of Los Angeles County voters approved Measure W, a ballot proposition to raise property taxes for the purpose of improving facilities that capture and treat water. With nearly 10 million residents, a population more than one fourth of California’s, and exceeding that of all but the ten most populous states, L.A. County does not have the luxury of failing in slight and inconsequential ways. Yet the Los Angeles Times found that, as of March 2022, the county had collected $556 million as a result of the ballot proposition but disbursed only $95.5 million of the new revenues. And, given that “actual construction had lagged well behind the money disbursed…it could take half a century to complete the work.” One former county official told the paper, “Part of the problem is that we don’t have a plan and we are saying to voters give us the money and we will figure it out later.”

The payoff from the increased taxes will not only arrive in a more distant future than the voters were led to expect but will take a very different form. In particular, the Times reported, “Storm capture projects appear to be a low priority.” Discerning newspaper readers will infer that Measure W had the key elements of a bait-and-switch scam. Votes were secured on the promise of addressing the public’s greatest concern: drought relief through enhanced rainfall and snowmelt capture. But the wording revealed, to the handful of voters who worked through it, that W’s revenues would be available for a range of water-related purposes, and that the priorities would ultimately reflect officials’ preferences rather than the public’s. “[W]hatever voters thought,” the Times concludes, “new water resources are not the main focus of the Measure W process.”

* In 1910 the philosopher William James lamented that, throughout history, “war has been the only force that can discipline a whole community.” He looked forward, though, to a time when the “moral equivalent of war” will “inflame the civic temper as past history has inflamed the military temper.” All that is needed to attain “that higher social plane…of service and cooperation” is “skillful propagandism” and “opinion-making men seizing historic opportunities.”

* It also gets harder to win elections when the activist state acquires a public image that is less like Santa Claus and more like Nurse Ratched: patiently, insistently, incessantly telling you to fasten your seatbelt, drive 55, remove your shoes before going through airport security, don’t use plastic straws, step out of the bar and stand on the sidewalk if you insist on smoking, wear your mask, get vaccines and boosters, lower your thermostat, replace your gas stoves, and water your lawn no more than once a week and for no more than ten minutes at a time. These interventions left many Americans feeling that liberalism’s supply of discipline and direction greatly exceeded the demand for it. As journalist Josh Barro warned liberals in 2017 in Business Insider, “All this scolding—this messaging that you should feel guilty about aspects of your life that you didn’t think were anyone else’s business—leads to a weird outcome when you go to vote in November.”

* One year ago The Atlantic’s Ed Yong, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his work on COVID, told another journalist, Sam Adler-Bell, that he covered the pandemic from the start as “an opportunity to take stock of societal problems that have been allowed to go unaddressed for too long.” Writing in New York magazine, Adler-Bell elaborated the point, calling COVID “an X-ray of the dysfunction and rot in our social order.” It had made clear the need for “the child tax credit, universal health care, investments in schools and hospitals, and alleviating poverty.” Accordingly, he said, the debates about COVID—when to end lockdowns, resume in-person public schooling, modify or drop mask requirements—“are as much about how we should regard all this suffering as they are about how we may prevent it.”

Replying in his online newsletter, Josh Barro called this approach to keeping the pandemic crisis from going to waste a flagrant case of “stolen-base politics.” Though people acquiesced in temporary departures from normal life during COVID, “[a]t no point, anywhere along the line, was there significant buy-in for the idea that we were going to permanently change the social contract.” The base-stealing involved skipping the step where the public was supposed to be persuaded that a Green New Deal was exactly the remedy needed to fix and redeem our rotten, dysfunctional social order. Persuasion is hard and humbling, requiring you to meet voters where they are in order to move them closer to where you think they should be. Far easier to declare that, because a crisis has rendered politics a luxury we can’t afford, we have no choice but to “trust the experts.”

* Greenhut’s Winning the Water Wars points out that in the late 1800s conservationist John Muir urged California to construct reservoirs “so that all the bounty of the mountains may be put to use.” By 1992, the Sierra Club felt it necessary to reproach its founder for such a “strong anthropocentric component” in his writing, different from, and inferior to, the “ecocentric thinking” animating the modern environmentalist movement.

* It is likely, even in heavily Democratic California, that the anthropocentric, all-of-the-above agenda of water abundance is more popular than the ecocentric ideal of perpetuating scarcity as a way to gradually supplant modern civilization with austerity. But, to rework a maxim ascribed to Stalin, how the people vote is less important than how their votes are interpreted, implemented, and litigated.

Californians’ desire for more water is clear…and hasn’t made much difference. California has not increased its reservoir capacity since 1980.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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