So what’s this peripheral canal thing, anyway?

The reason I read up on California water history was to understand the background of this past season’s political debate. Fine geeky recreation. Radio programs said that Governor Schwartzenagger’s proposal to restore the delta was a recap of the “peripheral canal” project which was politically defeated in the 1980s. Ok, so what was the peripheral canal. Why was it defeated. Was it good or bad then? Is it good or bad now? Would it restore the delta, and why is the delta in such terrible shape, anyway?
So, here’s my summary attempt to answer these questions. Bear in mind that I just got to California and read a few books. These opinions reflect that highly imperfect knowledge.
Why is the Delta in terrible shape? Largely because fresh water is being siphoned off in massive quantities. On an average year (using 1980 to 92 to calculate the average), about 26 million acre-feet of water flowed from the Delta’s sources, and 5 million of that gets diverted to farms and cities in central and southern california. Take that much fresh water out of an estuary evolved for a shifting mix of salt and fresh water, and the ecosystem declines. Other reasons include pollution from farm and city runoff, and the “flood prevention” system that keeps the area from being regularly recharged by spring floods, and keeps houses dry for the two million people who currently live in the region.
So, would the peripheral canal restore the delta? Well, the governor’s version did have funding for some environmental restoration, but in sum, it takes more water out of the delta. Taking more water out doesn’t seem like the right direction.
Why did the peripheral canal fail in the 80s? For the most part, Southern and Central Californians were in favor of it and Northern Californians were opposed. But the dynamics of the fateful 1982 election were more complicated. Some supporters stopped fighting for the canal, because the initiative also included protection for some wild rivers. The water lobby got greedy and opposed the wild river measure as a bad precedent.
Why are California water politics so stuck, and so environmentally destructive (This is my own inference based on spotty information and could be horribly wrong). Agriculture, which uses 80% of the state’s water, is a large, $30+ billion dollar industry with very large players, and seems to have the legislature well bought. Through a combination of federal and state programs, farms get subsidized water at 1/100th the the price paid in cities, and so agriculture has minimal incentive to conserve. There is a historical alliance between southern california’s cities and central california’s agricultural districts to take more water than the environment can bear.
So, why has Arnold’s plan failed so far? It is described as a partisan issue, with democrats opposing the plan to build a peripheral canal, plus dams and reservoirs. But how did the dynamics map to the North/South, urban/rural divides? Hard to say without doing some more looking into the issue.
Is there any way to get agriculture to waste less water? Much of the farm water subsidies are federal, and the structure of the Senate makes that equation politically tough. State incentives to transition from wasteful methods would be helpful, but not as much as needed. In California, would it be possible to break the historical alliance between Southern California cities, which have done a spectacular job of conservation in recent decades, and probably lean more blue and green, agriculture, which continues to waste? Has this happened already, and is this dynamic contributing to the woes of Arnold’s water plan? I have no idea.
pls. After I read a few long, juicy books, I found this
cogent summary, which provides the big picture view of California water use and water troubles. If you’re curious and don’t want to read long books, start here.

Lemons and a bit of lemonade

Lemon: the driveway and front yard are torn up, the contractor isn’t showing up to finish the job, and the landlords have already paid them 2/3, so who knows when they will finish. I need to move the car to the street every day, and move it to the dirt driveway at night to avoid a ticket. I sometimes fall asleep before moving the car at night.
Lemon: in an absurd parody of security, air travelers need to put their toothpaste into ziplock baggies to fly.
Lemonade: the envelope-sized ziplock baggies from the Menlo Parking Patrol are just the right size for a toothbrush and toothpaste.

Water in California: The Great Thirst and Battling the Inland Sea

The Country in the City tells the story how Bay Area residents organized to preserve open space. It is an inspiring and encouraging tale. The evidence of success is visible on any clear day. The culture and organizing practices that kept the hills green is active today, as Bay Area towns organize to combat greenhouse gas emissions.
The story of California water by contrast, is an ongoing tale of human folly. Battling the Inland Sea, by Robert Kelley, focuses on the efforts to deal with chronic flooding in the Sacramento / SanJoaquin delta. The Great Thirst is a magisterial overview of water use and water wars in California.
Robert Kelley wasn’t just a bystander to the ironies of water history, but an actor. In the the 50s, he served as an expert witness, marshaling the history of the century of failed efforts to control flooding in the delta. The earlier efforts, he concluded, were doomed to fail because they lacked a comprehensive perspective of the delta water system. Estimates of the volume of seasonal floods were off by factors of hundreds. Piecemeal flood control efforts were next to useless.
Kelley puts the history of delta flood control in the perspective of the history of California political culture. In the 1800s, politics was polarized between Democrats, who distrusted central authority and formal education, and believed in local control, and Whigs, who believed in the enlightened rule of an educated elite. The local-control approach to flood control was a disaster. Landowners on either side of a river mounted futile arms races to build levees on their side of the river and sabotage the levee on the other side.
During the civil war era, Southerners broke with the Whig party, and the remnants formed the Republicans, but the traits of political culture remained. The centralizing, technocratic, elitist impulse held sway in the early 20th century and enabled larger, more centralized projects. Kelley seemingly sympathizes with the Whig point of view. With the massive, California State Water Project in the 50s and 60s, Kelley is confident that they finally got it right (I have the 1989 edition from the library, I don’t know if he’s more appropriately pessimistic in the 1998 version)
But they didn’t. The vast quantities of water siphoned from the delta has left the ecosystem on the verge of collapse. A judge’s recent order limiting water export from the Delta to protect the endangered Delta Smelt has thrown the system into disarray. A recent special legislative session to deal with the water issues ended without agreement.
Reading the 150 year history of the Inland Sea in the context of current events is sobering enough. The Great Thirst surveys California’s water follies with a panoramic perspective of California’s massive water works. The draining of the Sacramento Delta to irrigate farms and supplement Southern California’s water supply is parallel to Los Angeles’ taking of Owens River water, and San Francisco’s appropriation of Tuolumne river water with the Hetch Hetchy dam.
In recent decades the hubris of the great waterworks has been tempered by values of conservation and environmental protection. The LA area has learned conservation lessons — its population has grown over the last 20 years, but water consumption has barely increased Scientists have realized that surface water and groundwater supplies are connected, and groundwater recharge is seen as a major source of storage.
Systematic problems remain. Farmers get subsidized water at 1/100th of the cost paid in the city, and farmers consuming 80% of the state’s water. Pesticides, industrial pollutants, and urban runoff pollute groundwater and streams. There are periodic droughts. Meanwhile, global warming threatens to cut water supply by 50% or more.
Like Kelley, Hundley puts the history of water in the context of political culture. Hundley’s analysis is proportionate to the book’s broader scope.
Hundley contrasts the system of California’s early Spanish rulers — central authority dividing water proportionately, in times of need, for the common good — with the American system. The American system has been cobbled together from a hodge podge of legal principles, including riparian (water control to the landowner of the banks of the river), appropriator (whoever claims the water first), and homesteader (a principle of Reclamation law, honored more in the breach than the observance, which allocated water only to small independent farmers). None of these principles recognizes compromise and common good; and a result has been endless court battles in the attempt to win a zero sum game.
While “The City in the Country” left readers with the feeling that concerted organizing can make a big difference in the environmental health of a region. The books on water history leave the reader with the feeling that our civilization is not unlikely to head down the path of ancient Mesopotamia, where irrigation led slowly toward environmental and political demise.