Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
We should be pointing fingers at California lawmakers—not the president.
Thank you, John Boehner, for flagging an underrated feature of California’s ongoing water crisis: The government deserves blame.
Well, that’s not exactly what the Republican House Speaker and Ohio Congressman said on Facebook earlier this week. Beneath a photograph of a sign promoting water conservation in Arcadia, California, Boehner (or, at least, Boehner’s social-media minion) railed against what he called “President Obama’s man-made water shortage in the West”:
Though this is also the man who said mere months ago that he is “not qualified to debate the science over climate change,” Boehner has a point when he emphasizes managing water resources “in a way that actually makes sense” over “liberal environmentalists’ backwards priorities” —i.e., reducing water use for landscaping and (gasp!) letting lawns go brown.
Allow me to explain: Water conservation by individual people and localities, no doubt, is an important part of managing California’s worst-on-record drought. But even more important is getting state and local water management policies right, since all relevant research implies this drought will hardly be the state’s (or the country’s) last.
Groundwater is California’s most important reserve in times of drought, and it is essential to farmers, many of whom rely on deep wells to irrigate crops. Yet before Governor Jerry Brown signed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act into law last fall, California had effectively zero rules on the books about pumping groundwater. And in practice, it still doesn’t; that groundwater act won’t really go into effect for decades to come.
So, even though the state’s surface is literally uncoiling like a spring due to severe groundwater loss, and even though some small-town residents have no water coming out their taps for the very same reason, Californians can still stick new straws into the big ol’ milkshake glass. It’s about as serious a tragedy of the commons as they come. If state lawmakers had chosen to act decades ago, or if local water districts actually kept track of how much groundwater farmers and homeowners are pumping, California’s bind would be far less serious.
Though Boehner references in his Facebook post a bill that essentially pins blame for the drought on federal environmental policies, Obama is not at fault for any of this. (And, for what it’s worth, that bill is unlikely to go anywhere, as similar efforts have failed to pass the Senate.)
But lawmakers at the state and local levels do deserve some blame. There’s lots of water in California; it’s just not nearly as well managed as it needs to be. There’s plenty of room for policy reform, including tighter, smarter groundwater management, encouraging conservation-based pricing schemes for residents, and creating a more effective water market to promote agricultural conservation.
On this one, Mr. Boehner, I tip my hat to you.