Politics Trumps Reality in State Water Wars

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

Well, the water bill by Hanford GOP Rep. David Valadao that just passed the House may not ease the drought, but it did wonders to warm up the state’s political climate.

“Congressman Garamendi Opposes California Water Theft Legislation,” screamed the press release by, well, Congressman Garamendi.

Sen. Barbara Boxer called it “another divisive and discredited proposal,” while Gov Jerry Brown asked Congress to knock it off, saying the bill was “an unwelcome and divisive intrusion” into California’s none-too-successful efforts to deal with its long-running water problems.

The water bill “has nothing to do with public policy,” said Napa Democratic Rep. Mike Thompson. “It has everything to do with politics.”

Here’s a news flash for those Democrats who are shocked, shocked that Republicans would use a drought to score points in their Central Valley districts: In California, water is always about politics.

If policy was the only concern, California wouldn’t have spent the past 30-plus years arguing about the best way to deal with the state’s water woes, all without ever getting around to actually solving the problem.

Granted, the new bill was more nakedly political than the typical water skirmish. A couple of weeks after Brown announced a state of emergency because of the drought, Valadao came up with a bill that’s a Central Valley farmer’s – and GOP politician’s – wish list.

It gives the feds, not the state, with all those pesky Democrats in the Legislature, decision-making power over much of California’s water, weakens the Endangered Species Act, limits the use of water flows for environmental purposes and generally ensures that Central Valley farmers get every drop of water they want, with every other user welcome to whatever’s left.

As Calwatchdog’s Katy Grimes gleefully proclaimed on this blog the other day, it’s families before fish in the farmland.

While Valadao’s bill is likely dead on arrival in the Senate and President Obama has promised to veto it in the unlikely event it does pass, that’s less important than the fact that the first-term congressman’s district has a 47 percent to 32 percent Democratic registration edge and that Obama took 55 percent of the vote there in 2012.

Valadao is going to need all the help he can get come November and promising the sun, the moon and the water to local farmers can only help in a district where almost everyone, including Democrats, relies on the agriculture industry.

There are plenty of serious policy questions surrounding California’s continuing fight over water. In 1982, when Gov. Jerry Brown, version 1.0, called for a peripheral canal to carry water south from the Sierras, Northern Californians called it an attempt to steal “their” water and voted the ballot measure down. Since then, arguments have raged about building dams for water storage, requiring increased water conservation efforts, diverting water to restore fish habitat, the price tag for any improvements and who gets stuck with the tab.

Brown’s new $24 billion water plan, slated for the November ballot, calls for building a pair of massive tunnels to carry water under the Delta to Central and Southern California, while still providing improved water quality and environmental protection for the Delta and California wildlife. It’s fair to say that not everyone’s agrees with the governor’s solution.

It’s been a struggle to get Brown’s proposal this far and while Republicans, Democrats and independents alike agree that a forward-looking water plan is critically important to California’s future, the ballot measure’s fate is anything but certain.

But when you have Democrats outraged that water is being moved past the environmentally fragile Delta and Republicans like Elk Grove Rep. Tom McClintock complaining that water is being dumped into the ocean and wasted to protect the endangered Delta smelt, policy arguments quickly turn political.

As large and diverse as it is, California is still a single state and politicians – and voters – need to remember that. What’s best for Northern California or Central California or Southern California isn’t always best for all of California and farmers, environmentalists, developers, growing cities and water users of all stripes all have to realize they’re going to have to share what in dry years is always going to be a limited resource.

But no one gets elected – or re-elected – by telling voters what they don’t want to hear, especially if it’s true. So expect political games to continue to take the place of the hard, realistic discussion California needs to have if the state is ever going to solve its water problems.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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