May 1, 2015

California’s Worst Drought Tests Gov. Brown

California governors seem predestined to be beset by crises.  There is something about this place that seems to foster them.  Pete Wilson’s tenure will be remembered as much for his management of multiple crises—major earthquakes, fiscal meltdowns, urban riots—as for his policy achievements.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s second stint as California’s chief executive has been hampered by fewer crises in number, but he may be saddled with the worst one in terms of severity.  The current drought, now in its fourth year, is the worst to hit California in its recorded history and shows no sign of abating.  Among water policy wonks, we hear growing concern that California may be experiencing our own version of Australia’s “Millennium Drought,” a 12-year drought that began in 1997.  If so, we are only one-third of the way through this crisis.

Brown seems to understand this possibility and has steadily increased the activity level of his administration to try to manage all things water in the Golden State.

Much of what Brown has done registers as positive for our industry.  Most recently, he stood his ground against environmental groups that attacked him for allegedly giving a pass to agriculture while imposing mandatory water conservation of 25 percent on urban agencies.  Brown correctly asserted that farmers have “borne the brunt” of the drought so far and reminded Americans in a national television appearance that our farmers use water for a very good purpose:  to provide the majority of the nation’s fresh produce.

He also chided Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton for arguing that the state should dictate to farmers which crops to grow.  Skelton parroted environmental activists who single out California almond growers as especially water-wasteful, but Brown apparently understands that market forces are far more efficient and effective in dictating planting decisions than the heavy hand of government.

The governor also led the campaign to ensure voter approval of the water bond last year, which provides funding for the public benefits (ecosystem improvement, flows for fish, flood management and others) of storage projects such as the proposed Sites and Temperance Flat reservoirs.  He continues to push for new infrastructure to improve the conveyance of water from the northern part of the state to farms and cities south of the Delta that have suffered reduced surface water deliveries even in wet years, due in large part to our continuing dependence on the Delta as a conveyance facility and the ecosystem challenges of pumping export water from the Delta.

This is not to suggest that we haven’t had differences with Jerry Brown on water issues.  For example, last year, we were closer than ever to achieving passage of federal legislation that would have restored some balance to the policies that govern daily pumping operations in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.  Sen. Dianne Feinstein and a group of Republicans in the House of Representatives, joined by Democrat Rep. Jim Costa, were very close to agreement on a compromise bill.  But with the lame duck session nearing its end, the Brown Administration publicly opposed the bill.  The reasons were not compelling, in our view.

We were told that Brown believes it is unwise to micromanage the state and federal project pumps in the Delta with legislation; that this removes needed operational flexibility.  We believed then, and continue to believe today, that it is precisely because the fish agencies use their so-called flexibility to pump less than could be pumped even with the Endangered Species Act rules, that legislation was needed.  We also were told the state was concerned that federal legislation might leave the State Water Project on the hook for environmental obligations of the federal Central Valley Project.  But with the two largest contractors of State Water Project supplies confirming to us that they supported the federal bill, this argument falls flat.

We continue to discuss the need for federal legislation with Brown and his team, and we hope for a better outcome this year.

Apart from the good and the bad, there is the unknown.  We don’t know whether the governor intends to fundamentally transform California’s water rights system and, if so, how he would change it, but there are rumblings.  One such example:  his State Water Resources Control Board has imposed historic orders curtailing diversions by senior water rights holders and are poised to extend the restrictions to holders of pre-1914 water rights.  This could trigger a wave of litigation.  The state’s water rights system has functioned well through both wet and dry periods, but environmental groups have created vulnerability by creating misconceptions about “oversubscription” of water rights and profiteering water sellers.  Where all this leads, the governor is not clear, but we must be vigilant.

When he was governor the first time around in the 1970s and early ’80s, Jerry Brown described his “canoe theory of politics.”  By paddling a little to the left, and a little to the right, you stay in the middle of the river.  As Jerry Brown increasingly tries to manage a cataclysmic drought, he will have to contend with powerful cross currents as he struggles to stay in the middle.