It’s raining again in California. In fact, it’s pouring. But nearly all that water, tens of millions of acre-feet, is running into the ocean. California has a water system built for 20 million people. Neglected and failing and strained to the brink, it nonetheless now serves a state of nearly 40 million people.
The conventional wisdom in California impels politicians to build nothing, attribute water scarcity to climate change, and limit household water consumption to 50 gallons per person per day. It impels them to redefine “infrastructure” as redistribution of wealth in order to achieve “equity,” while castigating actual infrastructure as an unwarranted consumer of planet-destroying energy and a stain on sacred ecosystems.
This is a scam. Saving the planet may be the supposed moral imperative behind policies that create scarcity, but the true motivation is power and greed. In reality, imposing scarcity is a convenient way to consolidate political power and economic resources in the hands of existing elites, who hope and expect the multitudes will assuage their downward mobility with online Soma.
If Californians are to avoid a future where they have to endure permanent water rationing because of inadequate infrastructure, it would only require a few individuals among the economic elite 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.
Where Are the Angels?
Silicon Valley is known for its startup culture where so-called angels provide financing to launch companies that aspire to change the world. Innovations spawned in the Silicon Valley have indeed changed the world, and in the process, made the San Francisco Bay Area home to hundreds, if not thousands of near-billionaires and billionaires.
With wealth like that comes social responsibility and political power, and many of the individuals wielding this wealth have stepped up. Whether nurturing new startups with the potential to usher in the next generation of innovations, or political activism at a scale rarely seen in American history, powerful individuals from Silicon Valley are changing the destiny of the world. Might not the world’s destiny be improved if there was abundant water, everywhere? Might not California set an example to the world, instead of accepting a future of water scarcity and rationing?
So who among the elites will expose the scam? Who will be a populist 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 California’s state 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. California does not have inadequate water. It has inadequate water policies.
The campaign nevertheless finds itself offering a solution everyone wants yet nobody wants to fund.
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 who 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 bother? They already supported a 2014 water bond that passed; but still nothing has been built. Then farmers backed 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 costs of food, water, energy, and housing are higher now than they were 40 years ago? Whatever happened to the Silicon Valley mantra of “better, faster, cheaper”? Does that aspiration only apply to cyberspace, and not the real world?
Water Abundance Helps the Environment and the Economy
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 would fund 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 a net 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—all of which 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, still 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 American Greatness.
Edward Ring is a contributing editor and senior fellow with the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013 and served as its first president. He is also a senior fellow with the Center for American Greatness, and a regular contributor to the California Globe. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, Forbes, and other media outlets.
To help support more content and policy analysis like this, please click here.