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Michael Hiltzik: Drunk on water

March 13, 2010 |  9:12 am

John Wesley Powell, the grizzled, one-armed sage of Western exploration, predicted the water wars that would afflict this region in an era of uncontrolled growth. Attending an irrigation congress in Los Angeles in 1893, he listened with rising indignation as speaker after speaker proclaimed the coming paradise of a transformed desert. 

As I tell the story in my forthcoming book on Hoover Dam and the Colorado River, he finally rose to his feet to deliver a warning. "I tell you, gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights," he said, "for there is not sufficient water to supply the land." Then he left the hall to a chorus of catcalls and boos.

As my Sunday column observes, Powell's warning remains unheeded today. The growth of California and the West has brought the region face to face with the limits of its natural resources. The drought of recent years is likely to persist as an artifact of climate change, warns the National Academy of Science.

There is no room here for the "tea party" politics present at Rep. Grace Napolitano's recent hearing on California water policy, when a claque of noisy Central Valley residents greeted almost every mention of climate change with the shout, "Liar!" This is the audience Tom McClintock, Meg Whitman and Dianne Feinstein have been playing to. It's a good way for them to make themselves irrelevant in the urgent discussion that has to be held.

The column begins below.

Who needs absinthe, vodka, or even a six-pack of beer? Judging from the quality of our debate on natural resource policy, all it takes to addle the political mind in California is water.

We’re talking about the water that flows to us from the mountains and the rivers, via canal or aqueduct, irrigating our fields, maintaining our aquatic habitats, and sustaining daily life in the cities and suburbs.

There isn’t enough of it to be exploited with abandon as we’ve done in the past, and nothing we do will increase the raw volume we receive from nature.

“It’s increasingly apparent that there’s not enough water for everyone to do all the things they want,” says Peter H. Gleick, co-founder and president of the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based environmental group, “especially as inefficiently as they’ve done in the past.”

Apportioning this finite resource among cities, farms and the environment will require well-informed discussions, conducted responsibly and in good faith, and thoughtful investments in conservation technologies. 

A perfect opportunity, in other words, for political posturing. 

Read the whole column.

-- Michael Hiltzik