President Obama visited the drought-stricken Central Valley of California in February to announce his solution: another billion dollars to study “climate change.”
Here’s a bulletin for those who missed the Holocene Epoch: the planet has been warming, on and off, since the last ice age, when glaciers covered much of North America. The climate has been changing since the planet formed, often much more abruptly than it has in recent centuries.
Until Earth begins moving into its next ice age, we can reasonably expect it will continue to gently warm. That means less water can be stored in snowpack and therefore more will need to be stored behind dams.
Everyone thinks the Colorado River is the mother lode of all water in the Western United States, but the Colorado is a junior sister to the mighty Sacramento River system. The difference is that we store 70 million acre-feet of water on the Colorado and only 10 million acre-feet on the Sacramento. Most of the rest is lost to the Pacific Ocean.
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Droughts are nature’s fault and beyond our control. Water shortages, on the other hand, are our fault.
We have not built major water storage on the Sacramento system in 35 years because of intense opposition from the environmental left. Indeed, most recently both the Brown and Obama administrations have pushed to destroy perfectly good existing dams, including four hydroelectric facilities on the Klamath River.
Even in years of plenty, this administration has insisted on diverting 200 billion gallons of water from the Central Valley for the amusement of the Delta smelt, devastating the economy, drying up a quarter-million acres of fertile farmland and throwing thousands of Californians into unemployment.
Opposition from the environmental left has even stalled efforts to raise the spillway at the Exchequer dam by 10 feet in order to add 70,000 acre-feet of storage at Lake McClure.
There are two possible visions for the future.
One is the nihilistic vision of the environmental left: increasingly severe government-induced shortages, higher and higher electricity and water prices, massive taxpayer subsidies to politically well-connected and favored industries, and a permanently declining quality of life for our children, who will be required to stretch and ration every drop of water and every watt of electricity in their bleak and dimly lit homes.
The other is a vision of abundance, a new era of clean, cheap and plentiful hydro-electricity; great new reservoirs to store water in wet years to ensure abundance in dry ones; a future in which families can enjoy the prosperity that abundant water and electricity provide, and the quality of life that comes from that prosperity. It is a society whose children can look forward to a green lawn, a backyard garden, a family swimming pool, affordable air-conditioning in the summer and heating in the winter, brightly lit homes and cities, and abundant and affordable groceries from America’s agricultural cornucopia.
Radical environmental regulations caused 800,000 acre-feet of desperately needed water to be drained from Shasta, Oroville and Folsom lakes last fall, even while facing a potentially catastrophic drought. That’s an acre of water 150 miles deep.
While President Obama proposes fighting the drought by spending another billion dollars on climate change, Gov. Brown proposes $14 billion for cross-Delta tunnels that will produce exactly zero additional water storage and exactly zero additional hydro-electricity.
Yet for roughly $6 billion we could complete the Shasta Dam to its design elevation, adding 9 million acre-feet of additional water storage to the Sacramento River system, nearly doubling its capacity.
Everyone has seen the eerie pictures of Folsom Lake as it lay almost completely empty in February. For just a few billion dollars, we could complete the Auburn Dam, upriver of the Folsom, that would hold enough water to fill and refill Folsom Lake nearly 2½ times. That’s in addition to 800 megawatts of electricity for the region and 400-year flood protection for the Sacramento Delta. The fortune being spent on Delta levees is to protect against a 200-year flood.
The great water projects of the past didn’t put taxpayers on the hook. They were built with bonds repaid not by taxpayers but by the beneficiaries of the water and power. The problem isn’t financing, it’s that these projects are blocked by environmental politics.
California is at a crossroads and it is time to choose between two visions of water policy.