The California Drought and the Ghost of Tom Joad

Why the environmentalist-induced disaster may be coming to a state near you.

California_Drought_Dry_Riverbed_2009The current California water apocalypse is helpful to study for two reasons—it’s a cautionary tale of environmentalist-induced disaster, and second, lesser versions of the same disaster could be coming to your state soon.

This month, California governor Jerry Brown ordered an unprecedented 25% cut in all municipal use of water.  That means a quarter fewer showers, lawn waterings, and swimming pool usage---for the entire urban population.  An important step, but likely too little, too late to stop mass unemployment in the agricultural sector, particularly amongst poor Hispanics, as the drought deepens and a new kind of reverse dust-bowl sets in.

California is an embarrassment of natural riches.  Leading the nation in dairy, almond and grape production and dominating world markets in mineral ore extraction, the Golden State normally enjoys fisheries and other commodity bounties second to none.  This raft of natural wealth and scenic wonder has over time attracted top human capital from the world over: when we imagine high tech industry, of course we think of Silicon Valley.

This bounty has allowed 75% of the population to be largely concentrated in the 25% of the state’s arid, balmy coastal areas.  The crowded seacoasts rely almost entirely on major rivers and large, man-made reservoirs for their huge water consumption.  But the state was still able, despite a doubling of its population in the last half-century, to procure enough water for everyone.  That is, until the rains stopped coming in 2010.

The drought was not man-made, but the population was precariously vulnerable to it.  Californians were also living on a fault-line of their own doing.  Back in the 20th Century, the state’s power brokers moved mountains and cleared valleys to create giant reservoirs which would slake the thirst of millions.  These reservoirs were (and are) fed by snowmelt from mountain ranges like the High Sierra.  The entire Bay Area, with its three million people, is near-exclusively fed by the Hetch Hetchy reservoir in Yosemite Valley.

But the environmentalist movement, starting in the 1970s, did its malign work in court.  Alleging that any new dam construction or river diversion projects would do irreparable harm to the environment, particularly the Delta Smelt baitfish, as well as newly-introduced salmon spawn, in the last four decades, judges have basically frozen California’s water storage at 1970s levels.  New dams and reservoirs?  River diversions?  Desalinization plants?  No, no and no.  But a high speed rail boondoggle?  Check.

Prospects for political relief are bleak.  The upwardly mobile tech gurus, attorneys, physicians and artistes who live around San Francisco Bay, Big Sur, Presidio Heights, Cupertino and Monterey will, to a point, embrace their mild First World water shortages during the remainder of the Drought with a reverential spirit of liberalism.  But as the West Side’s orchards and vineyards gradually turn to dust for lack of rain, and as the groundwater table runs ever deeper, the state will have to confront its poor Mexican immigrants having ever fewer agricultural jobs available, and its farmers paving over once-profitable fields of dreams.  Gangs and refugees usually go together, and will create a bleak symbiosis of civil undoing.

Sometimes apocalypses are mobile.

As of 2013, 40 out of 50 states, according to a GAO report, are expected to have some sort of water shortage over the next 10 years.  The West is particularly vulnerable, because as its population of Mexican immigrants keeps increasing, so do its water needs.  Nevada and Arizona’s populations will double over the next 15 years from 2000.  The time is coming when the next Tom Joad will flee California and arrive, iPod in hand, to the bountiful lakes of Minnesota.

Christopher S. Carson was formerly with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

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