California's Rain Delay

Friday, January 17, 2014

So there you have it: California Gov. Jerry Brown has declared his state to be under the spell of a drought official, asking businesses and residents to reduce their water consumption by 20% (here’s the proclamation). Thus it’s official: rain-starved California, dominated by a high-pressure system that’s meant unseasonably warm temperatures and nary a major storm during what normally is its cooler wet season, suffers from what every Californian already knows: a severe water deficiency (weather nerds might enjoy this explanation of what all’s behind the Golden State’s dry spell, as well as this comparison between droughts then and now).

Where there’s a gubernatorial edict, there’s sure to be politics. And here are some political angles relevant to the Governor’s proclamation. That would include:

He’s Been Through This Before. The good thing about resuming with the same you last held 28 years previously: a ring of familiarity to most natural disasters. Brown was governor when California endured a two-year drought, from 1976-77. That doesn’t mean he jumped into the matter with much zeal. Brown created a drought task force. However, critics will point out that Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Jim Costa, both Democrats, called on Brown to declare a drought and to request a broad emergency declaration from the Obama Administration – a month ago. What would that have fast-tracked? Water transfers, suspending regulations, maybe a few federal dollars. This may explain why the Governor was in the Central Valley the past week both talking up high-speed rail and showing concern for drought-stricken locals.

What Can He Do? “Governors can’t make it rain” has been one of Brown’s preferred lines when discussing the weather. What he can do – and will have to do, now that he’s raised the stakes – is balance the competing needs of California’s water users. "We'll take whatever steps we can, in collaboration with the state's farmers, to deal with water, and also the urban people have to do their part," Brown said during the aforementioned visit to the Central Valley visit. "But don't think that a paper from the governor's office is going to affect the rain." Politically, this puts the Democratic governor in an uneasy spot: moves to alleviate the pain and suffering of the state’s agricultural community, which will mean tinkering with pre-existing environmental safeguards, won’t play well with California’s green crowd, which already has beefs with Brown over fracking and using carbon-tax proceeds to fund high-speed rail (here’s a lively debate about Brown’s possible moves).

North vs. South. The other possible clash: the state’s population bases. Northern California is experiencing a genuine crisis – the city of Folsom, about 20 miles east of Sacramento along the American River, imposed a 20% water conservation order last month. So too has the capital city. Although Los Angeles just experienced a record dry year, L.A.’s Metropolitan Water District (the Southland’s main wholesale water importer) says it has enough stored water to last through another parched year (MWD’s primary reservoir, Diamond Valley Lake, is at 72% of capacity). North-South tensions is the last thing Sacramento needs at this time, as the State Legislature’s leadership already is fractured along the same fault line.

Tunnel Vision? Assuming he runs for re-election this fall and secures a fourth and final term, Governor Brown would like to add two pricy items to his legacy trophy case: California’s $68 billion high-speed rail project and a $25 billion overhaul of the state’s water system featuring to massive tunnels – each 40 feet high and 35 miles long – under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Like high-speed rail, the tunnel plan doesn’t lack for critics. Does a full-blown water crisis make the plan a tougher or an easier sell? Then again, some reports suggest the idea is drying up – at least, as far as being a 2014 ballot initiative.

Beware the Backsplash? California’s economy is a barbell – heavily weighted at one end with high-income earners, and heavily poor at the other extreme. Sacramento policy decisions also have a barbell design: the rich get socked; the underclass also feels the effect when the safety net is touched. Meanwhile, the middle class notices little out of Sacramento – that is, until policies and edits tamper with quality of life. For Gray Davis, the last California governor to lose his job by popular decision, the downfall began with a state electricity crisis and rolling blackouts that struck voters regardless of income or political affiliation. Just as Jerry Brown, running for the U.S. Senate in 1992, was dogged by medfly spraying. Let’s suppose that water-restricted Californians have to endure a summer and fall of dried-out lawns, unwashed cars, and weather-beaten golf courses. It’s the sort of daily annoyance that puts voters in a filthy mood – maybe not foul enough to cost Brown his job, but sore enough to exact a pound of flesh elsewhere on the ballot.


Follow Bill Whalen on Twitter: @hooverwhalen