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July 17, 2020

Words Matter

“Words matter,” begins Michael Mandelbaum, professor emeritus of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University, and former faculty member at Harvard University, Columbia University and the U.S. Naval Academy.

He continues on, “especially words defining complicated political arrangements, because they shape perceptions of the events of the past, attitudes toward policies being carried out in the present, and expectations about desirable directions for the future.”

While he was doubtless referring to complicated political arrangements in the international arena, Mandelbaum’s words resonate as I observe an apparent terminology shift in water policy.

Western water policy is fraught with competing interests and complicated laws and arrangements. Nonetheless, the players in this arena have historically managed to speak the same language, with shared understanding of terms and ideas, even as they competed as policy advocates. This has helped legislators and other interests not so imbedded in the nuances of water policy to at least have confident understanding of the basics of water storage, conveyance, allocations, etc., as they wade into a matter before them.

From the day I came to Western Growers, one of those commonly understood and accepted terms has been “water supply reliability.” It was used ubiquitously, by advocates of all stripes, in the midst of debates over new surface storage (dams), new conveyance facilities (the Delta tunnel or tunnels, among others), groundwater recharge facilities and the operational criteria governing them all. An entire chapter of the 2009 water bond (the precursor to the watered-down Prop. 1 in 2014) is entitled, “Water Supply Reliability.” The term always made sense, because physical infrastructure is generally constructed for the primary purpose of providing reliable water supplies to cities and farms. No one can dispute, for example, that Oroville Dam and the California Aqueduct were created to help secure a reliable water supply for Los Angeles and greater Southern California, and that without those facilities, many millions of people would be in serious trouble.

In recent years, I began noticing a new term taking the place of “water supply reliability.” Today you would be hard-pressed to hear California officials utter that phrase, but you will find them aspiring to a new era of water management that is defined by “resilience,” or “resiliency.”

Indeed, the Newsom Administration has made the turn of phrase central to their water priorities, which they have labeled the Water Resilience Portfolio. Mandated in Governor Newsom’s April 2019 executive order, a final package of recommended actions to “ensure the state’s long-term water resilience and ecosystem health” is forthcoming.

This is all merely to say that words do in fact matter, because words can also be code for something else. In this case, I believe the word resilience is code for a policy agenda that, described accurately and openly, would reveal objectives intended to displace “water supply reliability” as the first priority of California water policy.

This is not to say that we should not have water systems and policies that are resilient. Of course we should, especially in the context of both climate change and protection of ecosystems. But water supply reliability for cities and farms is no less important a consideration of building resiliency into our water policies than any other imperative. So why retire the term without so much as a eulogy?

As I have observed all of this (with more than a few pointed comments along the way), I have also seen “resilience” gain traction elsewhere. California leaders frequently speak and write of “climate resiliency,” which, as with water policy, is a fine idea in the abstract but begs for candor in the all-important details, like what the state’s climate policies mean for the resilience of businesses, like farms, that are increasingly less resilient to the harsh economic realities imposed by California’s thick and thorny regulatory regimes.

This move is quite savvy, actually. Attaching the word resilience to a policy agenda presents a tough target to hit. It infers a science-based, data-informed plan that protects all from the unforeseen dangers of unpredictable or fast-changing circumstances beyond our control. For advocates of private sector interests, the highest priority is to forcefully define the harmful consequences to people and communities that will result from policy decisions baked into a “resiliency” agenda that is not truly balanced and protective of all.

As California and the rest of the country emerge from the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world undoubtedly will be different in many fundamental ways. But we have a choice about what we want this future to look like, so pay particular attention to the words our political leaders use to define their intended pathway forward. As Mandelbaum admonishes us, these words matter because within them lies a policy agenda that, visible or not, can shape our social, political and economic future.