While backpacking this week, walking from Auburn to Sacramento in large part in order to see the drawn-down Folsom Reservoir and the living North Fork American River that has been revealed, I had a lot of time to think about water use and drought.
I see the drought as an inflection point where California could change directions towards a sustainable future. We basically have two choices: 1) try to spend and engineer our way out of the drought crisis, or 2) bring our behavior within the limits of nature. Of course ultimately, we cannot spend and engineer our way out, we only delay reaching the limit and hit that limit all the harder.
Politicians, of course, are always in favor of spend and engineer. Republicans, who say they are opposed to the spend part, but always seem to turn a blind eye when it comes to expenditures that benefit their conservative constituency, would like to spend and engineer. The dead-on-arrival house bill was an example. Proposals to resurrect discredited projects including Auburn Dam are another. Democrats fare little better. The delta tunnels are an attempt to bypass the reality of limited water supplies with a very expensive, very problematic plumbing solution.
I think that in California we have largely come to the end of the usefulness of spending and engineering large projects. They always cost more than intended, and work less well than intended. Part of the difficulty is that the larger the project, the more likely it is to be one-size-fits-all, trying to meet many goals and failing at most. Small projects have their own challenges, but at least they can be designed to fit local realities of environment, funding and social priorities. I think the size and complexity of the state has outrun our ability to think and plan. I am not suggesting that we don’t plan, that we don’t build, just that large projects are rarely the best solution anymore.
So you’d think from what I just said that I’d be against high speed rail. But I’m not. We have spent 60 years and trillions of dollars building a car-centric transportation system in California, and it is time we make up for that with a much smaller investment in rail. There are freeway interchanges that have cost almost as much as the entire high speed rail system. If we simply stop spending now, we will be impoverished for all time by our one-mode transportation system. It is not just the big project, high speed rail, that we need, but many smaller rail projects as well, track upgrades, double and triple tracking, electrification, purchase of new railcars and locomotives to meet existing and future demand, grade separation, better integration of services and schedules. Etc.
So, where will California go? More of the same, an attempt to spend and engineer our way out of crises, pretending that natural limits do not exist, or learning to live within limits and learning how to create vibrant economies without growth and waste?