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God Sent the Rain, But We Need an Angel to Build the Infrastructure to Manage It

If Californians are to avoid a future where they have to endure permanent water rationing because of inadequate water infrastructure, a few members of the economic elite will have to break with the pack. As it is, in the wealthiest, most innovative place on earth, ordinary citizens are being conditioned to accept algorithmically monitored lives of scarcity, supposedly to save the planet. But in reality, scarcity is a convenient way to consolidate political power and economic resources in the hands of existing elites, who count on the multitudes to assuage their downward mobility with online Soma.

So who will break with the pack? Who will be an Angel? For a few million dollars, a sum that any one of California’s hundreds of mega millionaires might throw down the way normal people buy a latte, an initiative to fund water infrastructure could be placed on the ballot. This, at least, would give Californians a choice.

The More Water Now campaign was formed earlier this year to qualify the Water Infrastructure Funding Act to appear as a state ballot initiative in November 2022. Virtually every expert in California agrees that more water infrastructure is necessary, that conservation alone cannot guarantee a reasonable and reliable water supply to Californians, much less cope with climate change. Projects to capture storm runoff and recycle urban wastewater are urgently needed, and this initiative would provide the funding to get it done.

Nonetheless, the campaign finds itself offering a solution everyone wants, but nobody wants to pay for.

Private sector construction unions, who could enlist hundreds of thousands of their members to sign petitions, have an understandable reluctance to take on the environmentalist lobby. Construction contractors that design and build infrastructure have deep pockets, but don’t want to see well funded activists target them in retaliation for their support, jeopardizing existing projects. Water agencies all over California desperately need the funds this initiative would unlock, but worry that the proposals for which they currently await approval would be denied by state bureaucrats with a demonstrated hostility to new infrastructure.

Farmers offer the most poignant example of why the More Water Campaign hasn’t attracted more financial support. With no water to irrigate crops, they’re just trying to survive. And for the few with the resources to fight, why? They supported the 2014 water bond that passed but still nothing has been built, the 2018 water bond that was narrowly rejected by voters, and the 2020 “Dams not Trains” initiative that didn’t qualify for the ballot. Now, with an initiative that focuses as much on urban water recycling as on storing runoff, the farmers expect help from other sectors, as they should.

So where are the Angels? Where is the Angel who famously said “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters?” Doesn’t that reflect a more sweeping sentiment, that we need to invest in genuine productive assets, because the real cost of food, water, energy and housing are higher now than they were forty years ago? Whatever happened to the Silicon Valley mantra of “better, faster, cheaper”? Does that value only apply to cyberspace, and not the real world?

There is a strong environmentalist argument in favor of more water infrastructure. If climate change is a genuine threat, then the need to upgrade California’s water infrastructure becomes more urgent, not less. This initiative funds projects to store storm runoff in off-stream reservoirs and underground aquifers. It funds projects to recycle urban wastewater. It leaves the choice of projects to approve up to the Water Commission, which environmentalists can hardly accuse of being hostile to environmentalist priorities.

There is also a compelling economic argument for more water infrastructure, but despite its merit, it has no effective constituency today. Subsidizing water infrastructure is easily a tax neutral proposition, if not positive. By lowering the cost of water, the price of food, utility bills, housing, and all other products and services that depend on affordable water go down. This means the tax revenues spent subsidizing water projects are offset by less government spending on subsidies and rebates to low and middle income households. At the same time, the economic growth enabled by more affordable water creates more profits and more tax revenue.

This simple economic argument, which leans old-school Democrat and decentralizes wealth, used to inform public infrastructure spending without debate. Now it’s rarely even discussed, and when it is, it’s dismissed by libertarian Republicans as wasteful folly and by progressive Democrats as crony capitalism. But back in the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration publicly funded roads, public buildings, rural electrification, and water infrastructure that are still paying economic dividends today. Similarly, back in the 1950s and 1960s, the California State Water Project publicly funded a water system that, despite decades of neglect, enables millions to live in coastal cities.

It is time to upgrade California’s water infrastructure for the 21st century. It is time to upgrade all of California’s infrastructure. But thanks to institutional fear and hidden economic agendas, the conventional wisdom is to frame inadequacy as virtue. Where are the rebels with the means to challenge this destiny? Where are the rebels with the temerity to embrace a future of abundance?

Where are the Angels?

This article originally appeared in the California Globe.

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