By Steven Greenhut.
Former White House chief of staff and current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s most quotable words are frequently cited as the apogee of cynicism, but they simply point to reality in the political system: “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” Indeed, politicians of both parties use crises, real or perceived, to pass measures they always wanted to pass.
A series of budget bills are a great example of the truism that Emanuel had detailed. In early April, for instance, Gov. Jerry Brown had announced in a statement the end to emergency water-use restrictions (in all but four counties) that had been implemented as a result of the five-year drought. That relaxation of state-mandated water-conservation rules was expected after a season of record rainfall and floods in much of the state.
But Brown also noted that climate change remains a major threat and that another drought could be right around the corner. Water officials concurred.
“The statewide emergency clearly is over, but it makes sense to continue to assist areas where emergency drinking water projects are still needed in hard-hit areas. We also understand the need for continued water waste prohibitions and reporting requirements as a ‘bridge’ to permanent measures under the long-term conservation framework issued in final form today,” according a statement from the Association of California Water Agencies.
Indeed, the governor’s conservation ideas are now included in a package of water-related trailer bills. Trailer bills implement the already passed state budget, and are supposed to be technical in nature. But governors often use these bills to quietly pass substantive measures – and to do so without full hearings and vetting. In this case, three bills, by Assembly member Laura Friedman, D-Glendale, make permanent a variety of wide-ranging conservation edicts.
For instance, Assembly Bill 1667 “applies the requirement to adopt an agricultural water management plan (AWMP) to all agricultural water suppliers,” according to the official bill analysis. It also “applies agricultural water supplier efficient water management practices … to all agricultural water suppliers (and) requires AWMPs to have a drought plan.”
AB1668 “creates a new drought response plan by making numerous changes to water supply planning and drought planning to incorporate climate change, enhance water supply analysis, and strengthen the enforceability of urban water management plans … and drought contingency planning.” AB1669 requires the State Water Resources Control Board and the Department of Water Resources “to adopt long-term standards for urban water conservation and water use.”
Not all water officials are supportive of the approach. “Governor Brown’s water legislation is seeking to give unlimited power and control, minus any oversight or accountability, to an agency with the competency of Caltrans and the compassion of the Franchise Tax Board,” said Brett Barbre, vice president of the Municipal Water District of Orange County and a director of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. The fear is the bills would give state agencies permanent drought-style emergency authority to demand water-use cutbacks on municipalities and businesses.
This certainly jibes with the governor’s stated goal of making conservation a “way of life.” And while Brown did remove those emergency water restrictions, he has not rescinded his May 2016 executive order, issued in the thick of the drought, that details a host of conservation measures.
One calls for a permanent framework of water restrictions that push urban water agencies to reduce water use by 20 percent by 2020 using strategies such as strengthened standards to reduce per-capita water use and restrictions on industrial water use. Another imposes permanent restrictions on hosing off sidewalks, watering lawns and washing cars. Yet another one calls for the completion of detailed management plans by agriculture water users.
These are restrictions the governor has long advocated. Most Californians understand the need for water conservation and have largely exceeded the tough standards the state government has imposed. They also realize that this year’s wet season could easily be followed next year by a dry one. But critics also question some of the government’s own water policies.
For instance, as I reported in 2015, federal and state officials were lowering water levels at the massive New Melones Reservoir and draining Lake Tulloch to help a dozen hatchery fish make their way to the Pacific. As Californians cut back on watering their lawns, their officials were draining water supplies for questionable purposes. Irrigation officials in the Sierra foothills were wondering why the state wasn’t prioritizing water needs at the apex of a drought, or at least able to temporary halt these fish-related water flows during a time of scarcity.
Furthermore, officials at the California Coastal Commission continue to delay approvals for a Huntington Beach desalination plant over concerns about the effect of the plant’s proposed ocean-intake pipes on microscopic plankton.
But the big news for now is that the governor’s trailer bills are moving forward – and they attempt to turn the drought crisis into permanent water policy.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.