We hold our convenient truths to be self-evident – Dangerous ideas in California water

by Jay Lund

View of strawberry fields, Elkhorn Sough Reserve, power plant, and the Monterey Bay.

Success in water management requires broad agreement and coalitions.  But people often seem to group themselves into communities of interests and ideology, which see complex water problems differently.  Each group tends to hold different truths to be self-evident, as outlined below.

These beliefs, when firmly held, do not stand up to scientific scrutiny, appear to other groups as self-serving nonsense, and hinder cooperative discussions on better solutions.  The counter-productive aspects of these ideas make them dangerous to policy discussions.  Since accomplishment in water policy requires a pretty broad consensus, these ideas ultimately become dangerous even to their advocates:

  1. There is a silver bullet solution. If only California [desalinated seawater, built more storage, used less water, recycled wastewater, imported water from Canada, captured more stormwater, …, invested in my project], its water problems would be solved.  The most effective water systems in California, such as those that were most successful during the drought, adopt a portfolio approach, with a variety of thoughtfully integrated water supply and demand reduction activities.  Strategic water management is more like good diversified financial investing, rather than betting on a winning horse.
  1. I win if you lose. It is often hard to know if you are winning in California’s water conflicts.  How much better off will the environment or farming be with more water?  Some, rather than answering this complicated question, find it easier to measure success by the amount of water denied to a competing interest.  Identifying villains is often convenient for politics and fund-raising, even as it distorts issues and solutions, and makes cooperation almost impossible.  The stereotypical Westlands vs. delta smelt conflict is an example where each “side” views their success in terms of how much water it prevented the other from receiving.  The strategy of opposing success by others only makes effective solutions more difficult to discuss and achieve.
  1. We can “solve” or “fix” water problems. Some problems can be solved permanently.  But California is a dry state with a huge, dynamic economy, massive irrigated agriculture, and a diversity of native ecosystems; it will never completely solve its water problems.  California will always have water problems and conflicts, which will change with time – as they always have.  Yet, California has managed to have tremendous economic prosperity and agricultural productivity while remaining a relatively good place for people to live despite its dry Mediterranean climate.   Even with water problems, we largely succeed anyway. But we can do better, especially in protecting our native ecosystems.  Discussions of solutions should be realistic about not solving all problems for all time.
  1. Someone else should pay. Finance is always easier if someone else pays.  We all want federal or state funds.  Water bonds pass costs on to the not-yet-voting future.  Alas, the water sector is one of the wealthiest parts of government.  State, federal, and bond funds are supported by general taxes or reductions in programs that serve poorer-than-average folks.  Reliance on state, federal, and bond funds often adds costs and skews programs away from being effective.  Getting money from others becomes a substitute for effective water management.   Water development in California should be set up more on a ‘pay as you go’ basis, with more stable funding for public and environmental purposes.
  1. Regulation will protect the environment. Regulations are good for preventing bad things, and environmental regulations have stopped many environmentally bad things since the 1970s.  But regulations alone have been ineffective at rebuilding the environment and protecting it in the face of many poorly anticipated changes – such as invasive species, non-point pollution, climate change, and population growth.  If we want good things to happen environmentally, we need to organize and fund ourselves so that good things happen.  Historically, we largely overcame massive public health problems only when we organized local, state, and federal agencies to solve these problems broadly and inspect and work with each other, with steady and substantial local and state funding.
  1. We were promised. Over the last 150 years, almost every water interest has been promised their ideal water delivery by some politician or law.  At some time, we (or our revered predecessors) accepted the promise in lieu of a less convenient but more realistic statement of what could be done. We all know that such promises can rarely be met.  This applies to water contractors, water right-holders, environmentalists, floodplain residents, and water users alike.  We all have unrequited aspirations.  Dwelling on these disappointments disrupts discussions and work towards better solutions.
  1. We need trust. No group can manage California’s water problems alone.  Trust makes working with others much easier.  But there is often little trust.  We all buy cars and houses from people we do not trust and vote for politicians that we should not trust.  If trust were a pre-requisite for business dealings, we would all be growing our own food, living in tents, and mostly dying young.  “Lack of trust” as a reason not to talk or advance is self-fulfilling and ultimately self-defeating – unless you are enamored with the status quo.  Earning each other’s trust is good, but finding ways to work together anyway is needed, in all walks of life.
  1. It will work as planned. California is a complex system that is always changing and has many uncertainties.  Planning is essential, but the idea that everything will go as planned is absurd.  Still, it is often politically convenient to represent plans as perfect.  We need to prepare plans and resources so that they can accommodate imperfections.  This is sometimes called adaptive management.

These dangerous ideas often have short-term benefits to particular groups – bringing public attention, raising money, establishing a firm negotiating position, and garnering and promoting internal cohesion within a community of interest.  But sticking to such ideas is ultimately self-defeating, impedes actual advancement for all interests, and demonstrates a lack of long-term seriousness of purpose and thought.

Success in water management in California will never be absolute, but we can do better if we avoid cynicism and work out how to more effectively discuss and better cooperate.  Doing so will require effort, creativity, trade-offs, working across diverse agencies and groups, and dispensing with some convenient but dangerous ideas that get in our way.

My own ideological affiliation?  “More research is needed.”  My ideological heresy? We don’t need all that much money for research if we work and communicate earnestly, and often collectively, to make research relevant and useful.

Further reading

Hanak, E., J. Lund, A. Dinar, B. Gray, R. Howitt, J. Mount, P. Moyle, and B. Thompson, Managing California’s Water:  From Conflict to Reconciliation, Public Policy Institute of California, San Francisco, CA, 500 pp., February 2011.

Hanak, E., J. Lund, A. Dinar, B. Gray, R. Howitt, J. Mount, P. Moyle, and B. Thompson. 2010. “Myths of California water: implications and reality.” West-Northwest 16(1): 3-73

Lund, J. (2017), Reflections on Cadillac Desert, J. Lund, July 9, CaliforniaWaterBlog.com

Lund, J. (2016) How bad is water management in California?, June 26, CaliforniaWaterBlog.com

Sabatier, P.A. and H.C. Jenkins-Smith (1993), Policy Change And Learning: An Advocacy Coalition Approach, Westview Press.

Wiens, J. , J. Zedler, V. Resh, T. Collier, S. Brandt, R. Norgaard, J. Lund, B. Atwater, E. Canuel, and H.J. Fernando (2017), “Facilitating Adaptive Management in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta,” San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science, Vol. 15, No. 2, July.

Jay Lund is a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California – Davis, where he is also Director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

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8 Responses to We hold our convenient truths to be self-evident – Dangerous ideas in California water

  1. Problem #1 – fish death is ok while extracting water (not for me). — Replace 1.5 miles levee at Clifton Court Forebay (CCF) with 1.5 mile fish screen to eliminate the CCF DEATH trap. 1.5 million square feet of fish screen can slow water over screens to no longer kill aquatic life while exporting water.
    Problem #2 – Delta Flow can be better managed if CCF is only allowed to be filled at night, returning the flows during the day. Releases from reservoirs can also be better timed for fish and export.
    Problem #3 – SALT incursion — block south1/2 of Benicia bridges with shipping lock and tidally controlled louvers and leave north 1/2 open for aquatic life and small craft.

    Solutions typically do not solve all problems but the ideas are measured against all and dismissed because they do not address all issues.

  2. Frances Griffin says:

    I would help to start by acknowledging that huge mistakes have been made in the past and saying out loud often that there is never enough water in the system to meet all promised allocations.

  3. Tom Arthur says:

    It appears the 8 “truths” above are political. What are the 8 scientific truths of water in CA? What else needs research?

  4. Pingback: California Water News for August 28, 2017

  5. Marcus Mendiola says:

    What a delight to read. Thank you for this piece.

  6. I love this dissection of self-serving arguments and positions. I think it’s really good to understand how much of such debates is emotionally based also. The situation here in Australia is just as politically charged, including recent allegations of gigalitres of water bought back for environmental flows being stolen by large cotton-growing businesses.

  7. Pingback: California Water News for August 30, 2017

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