Water, growth, planning and sprawl in California—and the long game

In a thousand years, none of us will be here, but if we make morally sound decisions, the Delta and the surrounding rural valley just might

To understand water in California, past and present, as well as some future scenarios, we suggest The West Without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts, and Other Climatic Clues Tell Us About Tomorrow ($29.95, University of California Press) by B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam.
For more on the proposed Delta tunnels, read “Water fight!: Will Jerry Brown's tunnel plan save or destroy the Delta?” by Alaistair Bland (SN&R Feature Story, June 27, 2013).

There’s no doubt that California has water problems.

The story of California has been a story of water—its presence, its lack, the movement of water from one place to another, the fights over water rights, the lakes that disappear or are created in the course of transferring water from the place in which it naturally occurs or accumulates to where we want or need it now.

In this obsession with liquid gold, California is not alone. Vast parts of the intensely beautiful American West are arid or desert; that hasn’t stopped millions of us from living and working there.

What we haven’t done, at least not in the last century of technological miracles, is pay the actual cost of water. This is as true here in Sacramento—where special legislative pleadings kept water meters at bay for years, and where current housing plans for the exurbs exceed projected housing need by more than 100 percent—as it is in the Southern California metropolises, where water is pumped and diverted from miles away to serve the needs of an ever-growing, ever-thirsty population.

Gov. Jerry Brown hopes to leave a legacy for generations with his rather oddly named Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which backers promise will stabilize the ecosystems of the Delta while still delivering much-needed water to Southern California via twin tunnels that are expected to be around 40-feet wide.

At the same time, plans for new housing in the Rancho Murieta area would turn a sleepy rural road into a major commuting artery—and even with proposed new bus service, it will certainly require major upgrades to handle increased traffic on Jackson Road.

All droughts pass, and most estimates of the long-term effects of climate change predict a future for Northern California that is, if warmer, also wetter. And, so far, we’re not in danger of running out of farmland.

But let’s talk long-term, when Northern California will need to feed even more people than it does now, and when Southern California will have an even larger, thirstier population.

What we have here is an underlying question of morality, one which we expect our ethically inclined governor to take seriously, even if we have trouble persuading local political and planning figures to do so. First, should we be encouraging the continuation—in fact, the expansion—of an already unsustainable population in an area that hasn’t got the resources to provide enough water? And second, should we continue to turn farmland into exurban housing when urban and suburban infill hasn’t even reached its saturation point?

The issue, from a moral perspective—one that considers the needs of the entire state, the needs of the land and the needs of the living things on it (including humans)—is whether we should be living in places that are environmentally fragile and unsuited for our continued habitation, not to mention expansion. And whether our agricultural land and green space has value to future generations greater than its value to current homeowners.

For just a moment, we ask our governor, legislators, and local representatives and planners to think in geologic time when contemplating legacies. Will it be the short-term advantage of unchecked growth at the expense of the natural world? Or will it be telling the hard truth about the West, water and land: There isn’t enough to do everything.

In a thousand years, none of us will be here, but if we make morally sound decisions, the Delta and the surrounding rural valley just might.