TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Joel Kotkin: California Is So Over

Writing at the Daily Beast, Joel Kotkin examines how the drought in California reflects the broader social and economic transformation of the state—and why current political policies that inhibit growth are to blame. Kotkin is the author The New Class Conflict, published by Telos Press Publishing and available for purchase in our store.

California has met the future, and it really doesn’t work. As the mounting panic surrounding the drought suggests, the Golden State, once renowned for meeting human and geographic challenges, is losing its ability to cope with crises. As a result, the great American land of opportunity is devolving into something that resembles feudalism, a society dominated by rich and poor, with little opportunity for upward mobility for the state’s middle- and working classes.

The water situation reflects this breakdown in the starkest way. Everyone who follows California knew it was inevitable we would suffer a long-term drought. Most of the state—including the Bay Area as well as greater Los Angeles—is semi-arid, and could barely support more than a tiny fraction of its current population. California’s response to aridity has always been primarily an engineering one that followed the old Roman model of siphoning water from the high country to service cities and farms.

But since the 1970s, California’s water system has become the prisoner of politics and posturing. The great aqueducts connecting the population centers with the great Sierra snowpack are all products of an earlier era—the Los Angeles aqueduct (1913), Hetch-Hetchy (1923), the Central Valley Project (1937), and the California Aqueduct (1974). The primary opposition to expansion has been the green left, which rejects water storage projects as irrelevant.

Yet at the same time greens and their allies in academia and the mainstream press are those most likely to see the current drought as part of a climate change-induced reduction in snowpack. That many scientists disagree with this assessment is almost beside the point. Whether climate change will make things better or worse is certainly an important concern, but California was going to have problems meeting its water needs under any circumstances.

Not Meeting the Challenges

It’s not like we haven’t been around this particular block before. In the 1860s, a severe drought all but destroyed LA’s once-flourishing cattle industry. This drought was followed by torrential rains that caused their own havoc. The state has suffered three major droughts since I have lived here—in the mid ’70s, the mid ’80s and again today—but long ago (even before I got there) some real whoppers occurred, including dry periods that lasted upwards of 200 years.

This, like the threat of earthquakes, is part of the price we pay to live in this most beautiful and usually temperate of states. The real issue is how to meet this challenge, and here the response has been slow and lacking in vision. Not all of this is to be blamed on the greens, who dominate the state politically. California agriculture, for example, was among the last in the nation to agree to monitoring of groundwater. Farmers have also been slow to adjust their crops toward less water-dependent varieties; they continue to plant alfalfa, cotton, and other crops that may be better grown in more water-rich areas.

Many cities, too, have been slow to meet the challenge. Some long resisted metering of water use. Other places have been slow to encourage drought-resistant landscaping, which is already pretty de rigeur in more aridity-conscious desert cities like Tucson. This process may take time, but it is already showing value in places like Los Angeles where water agencies provide incentives.

But ultimately the responsibility for California’s future lies with our political leadership, who need to develop the kind of typically bold approaches past generations have embraced. One step would be building new storage capacity, which Governor Jerry Brown, after opposing it for years, has begun to admit is necessary. Desalinization, widely used in the even more arid Middle East, notably Israel, has been blocked by environmental interests but could tap a virtually unlimited supply of the wet stuff, and lies close to the state’s most densely populated areas. Essentially the state could build enough desalinization facilities, and the energy plants to run them, for less money than Brown wants to spend on his high-speed choo-choo to nowhere. This piece of infrastructure is so irrelevant to the state’s needs that even many progressives, such as Mother Jones‘ Kevin Drum, consider it a “ridiculous” waste of money.

Read more at the Daily Beast.

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