Piercing the Veil of Opposition to the California WaterFix

John Mirisch
Vice-Mayor, City of Beverly Hills

While I was walking back to my seat in the Metropolitan Water District Board Room after having made comments in support of the California Water Fix, a stubbly dude in a porkpie hat looked up and sneered loudly at me, “A**hole!”

One might think that I had just completed a tirade against Pabst Blue Ribbon to provoke such a response, but my actual comments were self-explanatory and follow here:

My name is John Mirisch and I serve on the Beverly Hills City Council.  My comments reflect my own position, though our Council is supportive of the California Water Fix.

Beverly Hills is actively working to expand our own water portfolio, making significant investments and we believe a variety of measures, including conservation is important for the future.

Yes, an all-of-the-above approach also means having reliable access to water from the Sierras and the Water Fix is a long overdue infrastructure upgrade.

Make no mistake about it, much if not most of the opposition to the plan is rooted in regional self-interest and narrow-mindedness.  While sports-based rivalries including anti-Dodger sentiment can be in good fun, there is nothing fun about the hypocritical and self-serving groups and individuals who refer to the Metropolitan board as the “politburo” and call us “colonizers” because of our efforts to share in the waters of our state as is our right as Californians.

This attitude may be hard for us to understand, but as noted political consultant Bill Carrrick remarked, “We’re not as parochial as Northern Californians.” 

The irony here is that the tunnels would be paid for by the ratepayers, while the delta farmers want the taxpayers of the entire state to finance their unsustainable way of life by paying for an aging and near-obsolete system of levees.  These provincial interests view water which doesn’t originate in the delta, but from the Sierras, as “theirs,” and also view the taxpayer dollars generated from Southern California, home to almost 2/3 of the state’s population as theirs, as well. 

They bring to mind the Talmud’s archetype of the wicked person who says, “What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is mine.”

Like the parochial opposition to the Peripheral Canal decades ago, anti-Southern Californian bigotry now threatens our ability to secure our water supply.  Climate change makes these important infrastructure upgrades more necessary than ever. No, the WaterFix is not cheap.  But further delay of creating reliable access to our water will ultimately end up costing us more.  Most of you are undoubtedly too young to remember the classic Fram Oil Filter commercial from the 70’s: “You can pay me now.  Or you can pay me later.”

Perhaps these parochialists who would deny our right to the water of our own state are pushing us in the direction of forming a separate state and maybe that’s something we should eventually consider. But in the meantime, even though to quote Beverly Hills resident Taylor Swift, “haters gonna hate,” we can’t let the bigots turn off the spigots. 

Right now, we are all Californians — not colonizers — and despite the chutzpah of some of our Northern Californian neighbors, we have just as much right to the water of our state as any other Californians.  

So let’s come together and show the same spirit as when Metropolitan was formed in 1928 with my City as a founding member.  Now, as then it’s time for Southern California to secure our water future.

Oh, one more thing: how ‘bout them Dodgers?

Foul language may be the last refuge of a hipster, but after the vote – in which the MWD board overwhelmingly voted to move forward with the Water Fix — one of the speakers opposing the tunnel came up to me.  It was a woman who had stated during her speech that she has a theatrical background and then went on to theatrically quote Julius Caesar in opposition to the infrastructure upgrade.  (And, no, she obviously did not use the quote: “Men at some time are masters of their fates. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”)

She accused me of being “divisive.”

“Divisive,” is, of course, code that someone disagrees with you and is unwilling to engage in dialogue.  No interest, of course, in getting into an actual policy discussion – or accepting some basic facts.  Unfortunately, there is a divide here and it’s important that we explore its reasons as I did back in 2015.

Not everyone who opposed the Water Fix, of course, was motivated by provincial narrow-mindedness.  LA MWD Director Mark Gold also bleeds Dodger Blue.  He opposed the project because he felt it was too big and didn’t meet Mayor Garcetti’s objectives of “reducing reliance on imported water.”  (He said he would be open to discussing a smaller project such as a single tunnel).

But sometimes cheaping out can end up costing us all more in the long run.  Much in line with the wisdom of Fram Oil Filters, MWD Board member Larry McKinney remarked that no Californian looks at projects built decades ago and says, “Man, why did we build them so big?”

Self-sufficiency is always a laudable goal, but it also depends on what we mean by “self-sufficiency,” as well as the surrounding circumstances.  The fundamental problem with the kind of self-sufficiency implied by Mayor Garcetti is that much of Southern California is a semi-arid desert zone.  The indigenous water available simply isn’t enough to support 20+ million people.  Even with better conservation and recycling measures, the local water resources will never be able to meet the demand.

One potential solution for true “self-sufficiency” would be to significantly reduce the population of Southern California.  And somehow I don’t think that’s going to happen – or that Mayor Garcetti would support such a position.

The use of the term “imported water” is also a bit bizarre.  We are Californians and the water comes from California.  How is this water considered “imported”?  We really need to avoid playing along with stupid word games, which feed into the absurd narrative of those Northern Californians who consider our use of the state’s resources as “colonization.”

In fact, if LA wants to reduce reliance on “imported” water, it should be just as concerned about the water the MWD gets from the Colorado River, which really does originate from outside the state (though in buying apples from say Washington state, I would also find the use of the word “imported” as a major malapropism).  In fact, LA should also reduce its use of Owens Valley water beyond the court-mandated reductions if it truly wants to become more self-reliant.  (Though in its stated goals, it is notable that LA talks about reduction of the use of “purchased” water which is “imported” and expressly excludes the Owens Valley water from this calculation).

It should also be noted that none of the “environmental” and pseudo-environmental groups opposing the project such as Food and Water Watch have any objections to the “importation” of Colorado River water by the MWD nor the potential environmental impacts of continued or increased reliance on that overtaxed source.

While I agree with the goals of self-reliance, I would contend that self-reliance should include Californian water from the Sierras as the state’s resources belong to all of us Californians, not just a privileged few.

To me this would seem to be a matter of fairness and environmental justice, but ironically one of the other main arguments used to try to spark local opposition to the Water Fix while invoking the term “environmental justice” was the cost of the project.  Several individuals spoke who were concerned about rate increases.

These concerns are legitimate as are concerns about potential cost overruns, but true environmental justice means sharing the state’s water resources, including among the two-thirds of the state’s population who live in Southern California.  Allowing a few privileged Delta farmers to hoard the state’s water would be a positively Orwellian instance of environmental justice.  Please let’s not confuse access to water with the price of it.  Ask most people in Southern California where our water comes from, and you will be met with quizzical looks.  But when people from all of Southern California, including poorer and disadvantaged communities turn on their spigots, they expect water to flow.  That’s what this is all about.

Oscar Wilde once remarked that a cynic is someone who “knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”  Many Water Fix opponents are being disingenuous cynics when they decry the cost because the alternative is not to do nothing and the alternative is not to simply try to become more self-sufficient and the alternative is not to crank up Bon Jovi and hope to live on a prayer.

And for all the opposition in the name of “the ratepayers,” where are all these self-proclaimed environmental justice advocates when DWP perpetuates unsustainable pension Ponzi schemes which cost the ratepayers more and more each year without any infrastructure upgrades or any benefits to ratepayers in poorer communities?

They oppose the Water Fix, a $17 billion infrastructure upgrade for most of the state’s water users, as a “boondoggle” (with MWD’s share being 29%), yet where were these environmental hipsters when the LACMTA proposed a completely unnecessary $10 billion tunnel through the Sepulveda Pass to be paid for solely by the residents of LA County through a sales tax, just about the most regressive tax known to mankind, unduly impacting the poorest among us? Where were they then?

As said, it’s important to understand the opposition, where it comes from and what motivates it.  Enough with the hidden agendas and veiled self-interest and outrageous charges of “water theft.”  And now that an overwhelming majority of the MWD Board has taken the long-term view and voted to move forward with the California Water Fix, it’s time to move beyond the haters, the malapropisms, the Astroturf environmentalists, the provincialism, the querulants and the hypocrisy and finally to create water security for our children and for future generations through an all-of-the-above approach which, yes, includes access to our Californian Sierra Nevada water.

Much of the bogus opposition is truly much ado about nothing, and after all the Sturm und Drang of the Northern Californian provincialists, it’s high time to tell them, hydrologically speaking and with the Shakespearean flair of the MWD Board meeting’s “theatrical” speaker:

I pray thee, cease thy counsel,
Which falls into mine ears as profitless
As water in a sieve.

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