National Commentary

Thirsty California, Want Alaskan Water?

nfbenton-mugMy awesome younger brother, who still lives with his family in the Southern California coastal town where we grew up, took delight over the past winter gently taunting me with text messages contrasting the mild temperatures in our home town compared to the misery I was suffering out east. “Ready to come back yet?” and similar things, he’d repeatedly write as temperatures in Santa Barbara were in the 70s while in the Washington D.C. area they repeatedly flirted with zero.

But now, with the excessive drought conditions in California causing its governor to impose stiff mandatory restrictions on water use, shall we say that “the worm has turned”? Of course, I wouldn’t taunt my little brother about it the way he did me; instead, I’ll just devote my weekly column to the subject for the whole world, so to speak, to see.

But this is not about our sibling banter, it is about the highly troubling conditions in California now, and I do have to concede that East Coast chauvinism in the news is alive and well, because if anything approaching California’s condition were to hit over here, you wouldn’t hear the end of it.
It is an odd testament to the amazing survivability of California’s governor Jerry Brown that he was also governor there back in the 1970s when I was out there, and there were similar alarms about a statewide drought then. Measures that time did not rise to the level of mandates, but strongly-worded appeals to voluntary rationing.

But it was not lost on many of us then how the burden, including the moral burden, for addressing the crisis was placed upon the average citizen for how he or she flushed the toilet or shaved. Even the legendary San Francisco columnist Herb Caen wrote that nothing made him angrier than someone who let the water run out into their bathroom sink while brushing teeth, instead of dutifully turning the tap off and on between scrubs.

Meanwhile, at a conference on the subject in L.A., I overheard a state policy maker comment to a reporter that even if such appeals made almost no difference in the bigger drought picture (the overwhelming preponderance of water use was, as it still is, consumed by agriculture), it was a useful exercise in altering human behavior patterns. I am wont to suspect that the reason why we’re told even a decent rain won’t end the drought is, my paranoia tells me, because social engineers don’t want to have to give up their latest behavior modification experiments.

But now, almost 40 years later, the current drought out there is looking far more severe than the one in the 1970s, and it seems that, if anything, Gov. Brown has been tardy in his official response. And if we are to be persuaded that this time the drought may be far more tenacious and enduring because it is a phenomenon associated with global climate change, then there is very serious cause for alarm, indeed.

A couple points toward a potential solution: first, California has developed as the most populous (by far) state in the union with the most abundant agriculture because of massive projects to divert water from the Colorado River and the Sierra Nevada to arid and semi-arid lands in southern California and the central valley; second, there remains on the books well-developed plans to extend that same model to turn major northern-flowing rivers in Alaska and Canada southward to irrigate the southwestern U.S., northern Mexico and to recharge the Ogallala aquifer on the U.S. plains. The plan, developed by the Ralph Parsons Company in the 1950s, was called the North American Water and Power Alliance, and while admittedly ambitious, it was demonstrated as imminently doable in U.S. Congressional hearings led by the late U.S. Sen. Frank Moss, Democrat from Utah.

I was honored to collaborate with Sen. Moss traveling the southwest publicize the virtues of this plan in the 1980s. Diverting that water to grow crops would have the effect of cooling the region and the planet, and I never heard a credible argument against its validity.

Maybe, my brother, now is its time.

Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected]