Hanging Out at the Poodle Dog Café
Drought Economics Run Amok
November 7, 2013
By Nick Welsh
WATERBOARDING: God, as Albert Einstein famously insisted, doesn’t play craps with the universe. Being a board-certified genius, maybe Einstein knew a thing or two about God. But clearly, the frowsy-haired wonder didn’t know squat about California water agencies, which in the cosmological order of things, probably outrank even the Almighty. In California, securing a semi-reliable supply of the wet stuff is all about rolling the dice and betting the farm. The question indelicately posed to the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors this Tuesday was just whose farm was getting wagered and whose hands were rolling the dice. The answer, predictably, hovered somewhere between bad and worse. The answer to the first question is that no less than $100 million of county water customers’ hard-earned cash is on the table, and probably a whole lot more. This will help pay for a massive pipe dream?—?concocted by Governor Jerry Brown?—?to more reliably transport the waters of Northern California rivers to the unquenchably thirsty customers of the Southland. Where I live, $100 million qualifies as serious money. If Brown wants to tap us for that kind of dough, fine: Hold an election. But if Brown has his way, there’ll never be any such vote.
Tuesday’s was one of those classic meetings where high-powered players with shiny bald heads, expensive suits, and chiseled features were talking about all kinds of things they weren’t really talking about, only they really were. Water’s like that. On the table was a proposal to extend the contract life between the Central Coast Water Authority (CCWA)?—?which for 16 years has been delivering unto Santa Barbara County varying quantities of liquid life from California’s northern rivers via a network of 444 miles of aqueduct and 700 miles of pipes and pumps that’s known as the State Water Project?—?and the California Department of Water Resources. Given that the contract in question doesn’t expire until 2038, this seemed puzzlingly premature.
Thank God Carolee Krieger?—?Santa Barbara’s cheerfully apocalyptic Queen of the Cassandras?—?was on hand to pitch a fit. Krieger, who has been predicting the State Water System will bankrupt Santa Barbara since before voters first approved it in 1991, suggested that the proposed contract extension might have more to do with financing the previously mentioned Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which in its most recent incarnation will cost $25 billion to build. That money will pay to build and install two massive underground tunnels?—?each 40 feet in diameter and 30 miles long?—?50 feet beneath the ecologically challenged and challenging Bay Delta up by Stockton and Sacramento. The Delta has emerged as the major bottleneck in the State Water System because the pumps needed to suck northern waters to parts south are so sufficiently powerful they make rivers run backward and have rendered certain fish populations?—?once plentiful?—?nearly obsolete. In deference to the near-extinct fish?—?the now-infamous Delta smelt?—?water deliveries have had to be cut back to unacceptable levels. The Twin Tunnels, as they are called, are Jerry Brown’s solution. In announcing this plan last year, Brown famously said, “I want to get shit done.” Thus far in his term as governor, Brown clearly has. But with the Twin Tunnels, I have serious doubts.
On the question of the State Water Project, I have always been profoundly ambivalent. On any given day, I can’t tell whether I think the whole system is miraculously monstrous or monstrously miraculous. I opposed it at the time for all the boring predictable reasons: It was too expensive, it was unreliable, and there were cheaper, better alternatives. It’s worth noting that the City of Santa Barbara has paid $68 million for State Water since 1997 only to receive a fraction of its entitled deliveries. Even in wet years, the system is oversubscribed; in dry ones, good luck. A few years ago, when the prospect of a drought started to become serious, the city’s water commission concluded Santa Barbara could reliably expect to receive 24 to 26 percent of what it paid for. (City water planners, it should be noted, peg the reliability at 50 percent, and the folks with CCWA put the number at 77 percent.) I understand that for people who insist on transforming a semiarid environment into Paradise, water will always be priceless. But at the risk of mixing my apples and oranges, I would point out that for $68 million, City Hall could have built not just one but three desalination plants. Yes, they are very expensive to operate, but unlike State Water, they are 100 percent reliable, meaning?—?unlike State Water?—?you actually get what you pay for. Given this jaundiced attitude, you can understand how I might recoil at being asked to now pay even more money to improve the odds of actually receiving something I never wanted in the first place.
The bad news, at least according to Ray Stokes of the Central Coast Water Authority, is it doesn’t really matter what the board of supervisors thinks or does about the proposed contract extension. It can and will happen regardless, he said. If the supervisors saw fit to give their blessing, he added, they could probably secure lower interest rates. The good news, however, was that the supervisors weren’t as inclined to roll over and play dead as the Santa Barbara City Council did two weeks prior. With much theatrical incredulity, Supervisor Salud Carbajal likened Stokes’s proposition to “extortion.” Supervisor Peter Adam twirled his one-of-a-kind signature mustache and pondered out loud?—?in a pleasantly challenging fashion?—?just what would happen if the supervisors chose to “do nothing.” And all but one of the supervisors expressed serious skepticism about some aspect of the Twin Tunnels scheme. And better yet, the supervisors’ attorney, the deep-voiced Michael Ghizzoni, seemed not just well informed about a ridiculously technical legal matter, but almost chomping at the bit to do battle with Stokes over the county’s alleged lack of options.
In the meantime, to steal a line from my favorite weatherman, Ethan Stewart, “I’m rooting for rain and betting on mayhem.”