To many Californians, the Central Valley is what you drive through on Interstate 5 between the Bay and Los Angeles: five and a half hours of fields, gas stations, and the occasional sign ranting against the government. “Congress Created the Dust Bowl” is the classic, but lately you’ll also see “Dams Or Trains: Build Water Storage NOW” and “Dam Train: Governor put our Water BEFORE your Train!”
Those billboards hint at the complicated political terrain that the bland interstate belies. Some of the state’s biggest showdowns are happening in the Central Valley. In Fresno, the region’s largest city, workers broke ground in January on the state’s high-speed rail line, a $68 billion project fervently opposed by many local residents. The Valley is also where the drought’s worst human impacts are being felt, between farmers fallowing their fields after multiple water delivery cuts and residents watching their wells go dry or suffering from poor air quality.
These two huge issues—the rail and the drought—have collided in the minds of many residents and representatives. Last week Republican Congressman Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader and a Central Valley native, made his umpteenth statement on why high-speed rail funds should be directed instead toward “drought relief,” meaning more dams. (He’s also advocated for a reallocation of surface water flows away from environmental uses.)
“Here’s a good idea that actually uses taxpayer money in an effective way: Let’s transfer funds from the high-speed rail boondoggle and use them to prepare our state for future droughts,” McCarthy recently wrote, referring to a recent L.A. Times report of high-speed rail’s likelihood to exceed its budget—a key reason that many Californians reject the project. “Drought is a real and immediate problem that we must respond to, especially with El Niño’s possible relief on the way.”
It’s understandable why these issues are conflated in the minds of the many conservatives in the Central Valley, an expansive, primarily agricultural region that has long relied on trucks, cars, and endless webs of highways and backroads. An expensive train does not fit into this picture of the old way of life, and the Valley is desperate for more water—again, not just in a greedy, rich farmer way, as some coverage of California’s drought might suggest. Why not put the billions that high-speed rail appears to be “wasting” towards another way to catch and store rain when it finally falls?
Having spent time in the struggling region, I’m sympathetic to this viewpoint. But “dams versus trains” is a false choice.
Yes, high-speed rail, like so many mega-projects, may come in overdue and over-budget. But it’s critical to the long-term development needs of the state—including, and especially, the Central Valley, which is seeing some of the fastest population growth in the country. That’s partly why construction is starting there rather than in one of the state’s major metropolises. The rail system will reduce emissions in the smog-plagued region, connect the Valley’s cities, spur transit-oriented growth, and create jobs in a region that desperately needs them—especially as it stares down the job losses in agriculture spurred by the drought.
Does the state—including the Central Valley—stand to benefit from more dams, as McCarthy suggests? The question isn’t as easy as it seems. Dams carry a harsh environmental impact and immense upfront costs that some experts believe offer diminishing returns. Furthermore, the best spots are already taken, as every major river in the state is dammed.
Still, I’ve heard many water experts, from small towns in the Central Valley to the loftiest offices of Sacramento, say that increased surface storage (by building smaller dams, raising existing ones, or even flooding valleys) should be part of the state’s portfolio of water solutions (others include conservation, recycling, desalination, groundwater recharge, and stricter regulations on groundwater pumping).
There is no single answer to the state’s water woes, and whether and how to build effective dams aren’t simple questions. Groundwater banking systems, for example, may prove to be a less harmful and more cost-effective way to increase storage capacity. But carefully considered water storage projects may be one among many solutions.
Building them, however, will require a funding stream separate from high-speed rail. Which gets to the more basic hole in McCarthy’s dams-or-trains argument. Here’s what he wrote in a USA Today op-ed in July:
By some estimates, current federal and state money earmarked for high-speed rail, combined with funding from the recent water bond, would be almost enough to raise three dams and build two new reservoirs in our state.
In general, you can’t just switch money between different pots of government funding. California cap-and-trade funds directed towards high-speed rail construction, for example, can’t just be redirected towards dam construction without a ton of lawsuits. Nor can state lawmakers simply redirect billions of dollars from President Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus package that accounted for much of the rail project’s initial funding base.
“You can figure out what somebody would have to do to change all that,” Dan Richard, the High Speed Rail authority’s chairman, told the Sacramento Bee. “By the way, we would end up owing the federal government what they gave us.”
So where could money for water engineering projects come from? In 2014, California voters approved a $7.5 billion water bond that sets aside $2.7 billion for water storage. PBS writes: “Several projects are vying for that money, including a plan to raise Shasta Dam by 18 feet, even though the present lake rarely fills.”
There are also many other things that Central Valley representatives should be championing to address the drought’s serious human and economic impacts. Besides storing, conserving, and recycling water, they should be advocating for better educational opportunities, bilingual training programs for jobs outside the fields, and increased access to health care. Small towns could use state grants to update and improve their drinking water systems, which the drought has also affected.
Water is not simple, and neither are the needs of a rapidly growing state. McCarthy’s simplistic, billboard-inspired campaign falls seriously short of a roadmap for the future of the complex, embattled region.