California governor Jerry Brown had little choice but to issue a belated, state-wide mandate to reduce water usage by 25 percent. How such restrictions will affect Californians remains to be seen, given the Golden State’s wide diversity in geography, climate, water supply, and demography.
We do know two things. First, Brown and other Democratic leaders will never concede that their own opposition in the 1970s (when California had about half its present population) to the completion of state and federal water projects, along with their more recent allowance of massive water diversions for fish and river enhancement, left no margin for error in a state now home to 40 million people. Second, the mandated restrictions will bring home another truth as lawns die, pools empty, and boutique gardens shrivel in the coastal corridor from La Jolla to Berkeley: the very idea of a 20-million-person corridor along the narrow, scenic Pacific Ocean and adjoining foothills is just as unnatural as “big” agriculture’s Westside farming. The weather, climate, lifestyle, views, and culture of coastal living may all be spectacular, but the arid Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay-area megalopolises must rely on massive water transfers from the Sierra Nevada, Northern California, or out-of-state sources to support their unnatural ecosystems.
Now that no more reservoir water remains to divert to the Pacific Ocean, the exasperated Left is damning “corporate” agriculture (“Big Ag”) for “wasting” water on things like hundreds of thousands of acres of almonds and non-wine grapes. But the truth is that corporate giants like “Big Apple,” “Big Google,” and “Big Facebook” assume that their multimillion-person landscapes sit atop an aquifer. They don’t—at least, not one large enough to service their growing populations. Our California ancestors understood this; they saw, after the 1906 earthquake, that the dry hills of San Francisco and the adjoining peninsula could never rebuild without grabbing all the water possible from the distant Hetch Hetchy watershed. I have never met a Bay Area environmentalist or Silicon Valley grandee who didn’t drink or shower with water imported from a far distant water project.
The Bay Area remains almost completely reliant on ancient Hetch Hetchy water supplies from the distant Sierra Nevada, given the inability of groundwater pumping to service the Bay Area’s huge industrial and consumer demand for water. But after four years of drought, even Hetch Hetchy’s huge Sierra supplies have only about a year left, at best. Again, the California paradox: those who did the most to cancel water projects and divert reservoir water to pursue their reactionary nineteenth-century dreams of a scenic, depopulated, and fish-friendly environment enjoy lifestyles predicated entirely on the fragile early twentieth-century water projects of the sort they now condemn.
It’s now popular to deride California agriculture in cost-benefit terms, given that its share of state GNP (anywhere from 4 percent to 8 percent, depending on how one counts related industries) supposedly does not justify its huge allotted consumption of state water (anywhere from 65 percent to 80 percent). But note the irony: California supplies a staggering percentage of the nation’s fresh vegetables and fruits; it’s among the most efficient producers in the world of beef, dairy, and staple crops. One can purchase an iPhone 6 or a neat new Apple watch, but he still must eat old-fashioned, pre-tech food. There are no calories in Facebook, and even Google can’t supply protein. On the other hand, I can live without an iPad. Who is to say which industry is essential and which isn’t? Insulin and antibiotic production constitute a micro-percentage of GDP, but is their water usage less important than Twitter’s? Is a biologist who studies bait-fish populations in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta really more important than a master tractor driver whose skill gives broccoli to thousands?
We’re suffering the ramifications of the “small is beautiful,” “spaceship earth” ideology of our cocooned elites. Californians have adopted the ancient peasant mentality of a limited good, in which various interests must fight it out for the always scarce scraps. Long ago we jettisoned the can-do visions of our agrarian forebears, who knew California far better than we do and trusted nature far less. Now, like good peasants, we are at one another’s throats for the last drops of a finite supply.