While the Polar Vortex brought Martian temperatures to Canada, another, slower disaster has been unfolding in my home state of California: drought.
It’s true that drought is almost the default condition in California. We’ve had too many people for the water for decades. I grew up with bricks in toilet tanks, “if it’s yellow, let it mellow”, grey-water gardening, and ♥ to save [water drop] bumper stickers.
But this is different. As of today, 62% of California is in a state of “severe drought” according to the US Drought Monitor. The California Department of Water Resources reports that the snowpack is about 17% of the average for this time of year. Since the state drinks, washes in, and farms with snowmelt through the dry season, this is a disaster, locked and loaded, ready to fire*. No one knows what will be coming out of their faucets this summer.
(Thinking of West Virginia? Hold that thought.)
In response, Governor Jerry Brown has declared a State of Emergency:
In the State of Emergency declaration, Governor Brown directed state officials to assist farmers and communities that are economically impacted by dry conditions and to ensure the state can respond if Californians face drinking water shortages. The Governor also directed state agencies to use less water and hire more firefighters and initiated a greatly expanded water conservation public awareness campaign (details at saveourh2o.org).
In addition, the proclamation gives state water officials more flexibility to manage supply throughout California under drought conditions.
Buried in the language of the declaration, unmentioned at the press event which focused on voluntary conservation programs, is a clause exempting the state’s responses from having to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the backbone of the state’s environmental protection law.
Because ignoring the environmental impacts of our actions has worked out so well thus far, right?
Now, before anyone starts hrrumphing, I’m a test manager. I know that when there’s a production emergency, you skip steps and break rules. But I also know that that’s how you take bad decisions, make mistakes, and create long-running problems. It takes fine judgment to balance the immediate need against long-term consequences. It also requires someone who will not use that immediate need to damage the infrastructure of decision-making, because it worked during the emergency, so let’s keep doing it is both tempting and perilous.
Now, there’s an argument to be made about CEQA reform; like any law, it’s acquired encrustations and redundancies. And maybe its provisions would slow drought relief efforts too much, and emergency managers should focus on its spirit rather than its letter. But Jerry Brown is on the record saying that he has “never seen a CEQA exemption [he] didn’t like.” That makes me…tense about the decisions he’ll make under the parasol† of the State of Emergency.
This bears watching. It could be a disaster that outlasts the drought.
* And fire it will. Indeed, already has, though the usual fire season’s not for months yet. Brace for worse news to come. The state’s going to burn this summer.
† In these circumstances, I can’t call it an umbrella.