Deconstructing the Opposition to the California Water Fix

John Mirisch
Vice-Mayor, City of Beverly Hills

Here we go again.  There’s nothing better than California water politics to prove the sagacity of French writer Alphonse Karr’s immortal quip: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (“The more things change, the more it’s the same thing.”)

Last week the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) Board voted for a second time to finance the Delta tunnels, aka the California WaterFix.  (Applying an abundance of caution, the Board decided to re-vote to preclude the impacts of a number of unsubstantiated allegations from WaterFix opponents such as purported Brown Act violations and other sundry sins, crimes and misdemeanors).  This do-over of the original April 10 vote didn’t change anything except that it has yet again unleashed a free-for-all of interested motives, some of which can be difficult to understand if you’re not familiar with the inside baseball of California water politics.

MWD represents urban water users of about half the state’s population; the WaterFix would build two massive tunnels for a projected $18 billion which would bypass the Sacramento delta and provide a direct connection with the aqueduct system supplying Southern California with a major source of water.

It is my goal to disentangle and dissect the self-interest which is behind the sharp words and to provide clarity about what is driving both the heightened rhetoric and the lawsuits.  Normally, I’m much more concerned with actions than motives; normally, I would suggest that motives are hard to discern and largely irrelevant.  But there is nothing normal about water politics in California.

At its core, it is a tale of North vs. South, with self-entitled Northern Californians looking at the tunnels as a “water grab” by thieving Southern Californians.  But the tale also involves San Diego’s resentment over what it considers to be forced membership in the Metropolitan Water District (MWD), as well as Los Angeles’s continued use of water as a major source of clout in regional power plays.

Let’s start with my own motives, as a representative of a small city in Southern California.  They are pretty simple.  I acknowledge a few simple facts:

  1. We can do without many things.  Water isn’t one of them.
  2. Most of Southern California is a semi-arid desert.
  3. Stormwater capture, recycling and conservation will never suffice to supply Southern Californian residents with all our water needs. There just isn’t – and won’t be – enough “native” water here to recycle.
  4. We need to take an all-of-the-above approach which includes stormwater recapture, recycling and conservation, but also allows Southern Californians to share in the water of our state.

Furthermore, I am of the conviction that the state’s water belongs to all Californians and I strongly support the WaterFix as an infrastructure upgrade which will help ensure a reliable source of water to the majority of the state’s population which Southern California represents.

As I wrote in an earlier piece looking at opposition to the tunnels, this is one of those FRAM oil filter moments, in which “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.”  I congratulate the MWD Board which again voted 60-40% in favor of funding the twin tunnels, as they represent the best solution to create water security, especially considering the future boom-and-bust cycles of precipitation which we can expect due to climate change.

The decision to fund the two tunnels solution, as opposed to going with a scaled-back one-tunnel “compromise,” which was discussed when the agricultural Westlands Water District opted out, is a gutsy one, but it is also the right decision, as even the LA Times agreed.  Water is not going to become any less necessary, nor is it going to become any cheaper.

LA and SD

In both MWD votes, Los Angeles and San Diego, in addition to Santa Monica, opposed MWD’s funding the tunnels.  Evidently some LA and San Diego MWD board members feel that those two cities should have a kind of veto power by virtue of their size.  Said LA Board Member Mark Gold: “Having the two largest cities in California split from most of the rest of Metropolitan is not in the best interests of Metropolitan.”

San Diego, it should be noted, has been at loggerheads with the MWD for years.  The San Diego representatives seem to feel they were forced to join MWD against their will back in the day and have been doing what they can to become independent of MWD – including doing deals to buy surplus water from Southern Californian agricultural water districts.  They routinely vote against any and every MWD expenditure.  That San Diego voted against such a bold infrastructure investment, even though it would ultimately benefit San Diego residents, is hardly a shocker.  Any MWD water seems to have the aftertaste of a shotgun wedding to the San Diego reps.

The opposition from LA isn’t really a surprise either.  Mayor Eric Garcetti, who appoints LA’s MWD Board reps, made his own opposition clear, calling the MWD vote “Los Angeles’s new ‘Mulholland moment,’” in reference to William Mulholland, who engineered the aqueduct from the Owens Valley which has supplied LA with water from more than a century.  Mulholland, of course, was the real-life inspiration for LA’s own “Chinatown moment.”  Garcetti’s position, elaborated in an op-ed in the LA Daily News, is that the MWD shouldn’t have “tunnel vision” and that LA can create water sustainability solely through relying on local sources such as recycling, reuse and stormwater capture.

And yet it isn’t exactly new geography to point out that most of Southern California is a semi-arid desert.  And, as Joe Mathews so convincingly points out, no, we cannot supply 2/3 of the state’s population with water through recycling, reuse and stormwater recapture.  While this might sound great, it is completely delusional.

While Mayor Garcetti’s op-ed provides some historical background, the WaterFix vote could truly be a “Mulholland moment,” but for a very different reason than Mayor Garcetti meant.

Perhaps a bit more historical background is in order.  What most people have forgotten is that Los Angeles used its access to Owens Valley water as a means to annex numerous surrounding independent cities.  Hollywood, North Hollywood (Lankershim), Venice, San Pedro, Eagle Rock, Sawtelle, Wilmington and Watts were all separate and distinct, independent cities.  Water was the leverage which Los Angeles used to gobble up those independent cities.  Water is truly the one thing a community cannot do without and in some cases, with the need for water so pressing, communities felt that “resistance was futile” and sacrificed their independence for a Borg-like assimilation into Los Angeles.

I know this very well because Beverly Hills was one of the cities targeted by LA assimilationists, with the active cooperation of the founders of Beverly Hills, who did not want to have to provide utilities to the residents of the city they had helped to create.  As part of their strategy, they actively weaponized water.  Small vials of sulfuric water were placed on the doorsteps of residents with the admonition, “Warning.  Drink sparingly of this water as it has laxative qualities.”  It was only through the unflagging efforts of such Hollywood pioneers as Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Tom Mix, Rudolph Valentino, Harold Lloyd and Will Rogers, who campaigned door-to-door in favor of independence, that Beverly Hills remained an independent city.  On April 24, 1923, Beverly Hills residents voted 507-337 in favor of independence.

Not willing to sacrifice independence for water, Beverly Hills became one of the original 13 founding members of the MWD in 1928.  That was our “Mulholland moment” and we owe our continued independence to the water security that MWD provides us with.  We still do not get a drop of water from LA’s Owens Valley aqueduct.

85 years later, Los Angeles votes to oppose an infrastructure upgrade which would provide continued water reliability and independence for Southern Californians who don’t have access to Owens Valley water.  Like 85 years ago, this may be a way for the City of Los Angeles to continue to use water to exert regional influence.

At any rate, the fact that LA and San Diego are the largest and second-largest cities in the state – with their unique histories and relationships to MWD and the other cities in Southern California – should not outweigh the 60% of MWD’s service area who voted not just once, but twice in favor of the two tunnel solution.

The “Environmentalists”

A number of environmental groups are opposing the tunnels not because of its proposed usage, but because of the potential for abuse.  MWD is not proposing to increase the amount of water being transported above today’s levels.  Because of the impacts of climate change, we hear that snowpack levels in the Sierras may decrease and that precipitation levels can vary greatly with unpredictable patterns.

This would suggest that climate change will lead to “boom and bust” cycles of precipitation, including years in which precipitation levels are historically high, like last year’s historic rains during which part of the Oroville Dam failed.

Part of the reasoning behind the dual tunnels is to be able to take “big gulps” when water levels allow.  Water could be transported to Southern California where it could be used to charge aquifers, and stored for times when the ever-changing climate cycle creates droughts.

By allowing MWD to tap its share of water closer to the source, rather than at the Southern end of the Delta, whose plumbing is out-of-whack from years of unsustainable farming activity which has created massive subsidence in many areas, Southern Californians can avoid the risks which climate change, subsidence and the unsustainable Delta plumbing present.  Does this mean we should be indifferent to the plight of the Delta?  Of course not.  But it does mean that we can secure our supply of water without having to worry that saltwater intrusion into the Delta because of a number of factors, including unsustainable farming practices would leave us literally high and dry.

There are, in fact, environmental arguments to be made in favor of the Delta tunnels, some with qualifications but all with the understanding that the status quo is unsustainable.

Much of the groupthink opposing the WaterFix comes from environmental groups based in Northern California.  The Natural Resources Defense Council, out of its San Francisco office, for example has vocally opposed the WaterFix.  Again, most of its objections are based on scenarios involving abusing the tunnels by wheeling water when it is in short supply, rather than – as intended — when it is plentiful.  Not only does the NRDC seem to ignore the impacts of climate change itself (!) by oddly refusing to acknowledge the impacts of boom-and-bust cycles of precipitation on water supply or the best way to deal with it, but it also seems to be very selective in its environmentalism.

While the San Francisco office of the NRDC would deny Southern Californians the use of Californian water, the NRDC has no compunction about San Franciscans slaking their thirst with water from Yosemite’s dammed Hetch Hetchy Valley.  In fact, the NRDC, which at one point had tepidly supported restoring this wondrous valley to its pristine state, formally asked for its name to be removed from the list of those who support the mission of the nonprofit Restore Hetch Hetchy.

Not only does this represent an instance of environmental hypocrisy at its most piquant, it yet again underlines that main battle lines in the fight against the WaterFix are an instance of North vs. South ressentiment.

As Restore Hetch Hetchy Executive Director Spreck Rosekrans wrote in a (quite naturally) unpublished letter to the vehemently anti-WaterFix San Francisco Chronicle:

“The Chronicle’s opposition to the Delta tunnels on environmental grounds begs the question of its longstanding support of San Francisco’s continued occupation of Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park.  The environmental and water supply challenges at stake are different in many respects, but one stands out – whose water is at stake.  Would the Chronicle’s position be the same if an iconic glacier-carved valley in Yosemite were dammed to service southern California and San Francisco depended on facilities in the Delta for its supply?”

Northern California

As Rosekrans’s letter shows, at its core, opposition to the Delta tunnels has its roots in regional rivalry and entrenched self-interest.  And those of us in LA County always thought that our rivalry was just about baseball…

As I wrote over two years ago, Northern Californians look at the Sierra Nevada water as “theirs,” and theirs alone.  For the Northerners, any infrastructure upgrades are a “water grab.”

“Water grab,” of course, implies that Southern Californians are trying to take something to which they have no right, but state law says that Californian water belongs to all Californians.  In fact, describing the Sierra water wheeled down to SoCal as “imported” water is itself a word game to make it look like Southern Californians are “colonizers,” a word which Northern Californians often use to describe our efforts to share in the state’s water.

But the term “import” would seem to imply that we are bringing something into our communities from outside the country.  How is Californian water being transported to California consumers a matter of “imported” water in any way, shape or form?  Do we describe rice or olive oil imported from the Delta as “imported” rice?

As the Modesto Bee editorial board wrote: “Most of the editorial writers north of Bakersfield have railed against the tunnels.”  Not surprisingly, as mentioned earlier, the San Francisco Chronicle has been one of the leading voices opposing the tunnels as a SoCal water grab.

Northern Californians themselves seem conflicted about what to do with the Sacramento Delta.  Recognizing that the current situation in the Delta is unsustainable, the Modesto Bee writes that the state should “tear down some of the levees that long ago destroyed Delta marshes and estuaries.”

Yet some 32 miles from Modesto, in Stockton, we can read in the Record about how important the levees are and that “levee reinforcement” is a “genuine solution” to the Delta’s broken plumbing and water supply challenges, in addition to desalination (which even the NRDC admits is environmentally dangerous and is a “last resort”).

Despite all these self-interested contradictions and the unwillingness to share the state’s resources with the 2/3 of Californians who live in the South, Northern Californians have the unfiltered chutzpah to describe Southern California efforts to plan ahead and secure an important part of our water supply as “divisive.”

When all else seems to fail, fiscal arguments seem to be the last resort of both the a la carte environmentalists and the Northerners, not to mention LA and San Diego opponents to the tunnels.

The thing is that the WaterFix is going to be paid for by the users.  Southern Californians are transporting water for our use, as is our right, and we’ll be paying for it.  This isn’t a public works project for the benefit of Southern California which is being funded by all the taxpayers of the state and the Northern Californian (and environmental group) concerns for the Southern California ratepayers is nothing, if not disingenuous (why have I never seen any of them come out in favor of much-needed pension reform?).  And yet Northern Californians even want to be able to vote on something which they aren’t paying for.

I have a bit more understanding for the fiscal objections from LA and San Diego, who are representing ratepayers who actually will be on the hook for the construction costs.  Both LA and San Diego don’t seem to need – or want to need – the reliability provided by the WaterFix as the other 60% of MWD’s service area do.  But, of course, the ratepayers will only pay in accordance with actual usage, which ultimately brings us back to our “Fram Oil Filter Moment.”

The concern that the WaterFix is in violation of Prop 218, which precludes gifts of public funds, is also a red herring (or red smelt, if you will).  The stated concern is that urban SoCal ratepayers will end up subsidizing Central Valley farmers, who themselves have rejected paying upfront for the construction of the tunnels.  But even if some at the MWD, looking to the future, figure that the farmers are eventually going to need the water which the WaterFix provides, I don’t think any of the member agencies are looking to subsidize agriculture.  No way.  On the contrary, member agencies who voted in favor of the WaterFix recognize that this upgraded water source is an asset whose value will only grow with time.  And if the farmers who are now refusing to pay their share of the infrastructure upgrade eventually want some of the water provided by it, they will have to pay their fair share – and that means water prices which reflect construction costs and interest, all of which is fully permissible under Prop 218.

Of course, that won’t stop any of the opponents from filing lawsuits in this Age of Litigation.  That is a sad fact of life, but we can’t let it deter us from doing the right thing.  Fortunately, those threats didn’t deter the majority of the MWD members from doing the right thing.  Twice.

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