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California's drought: How Trump's blustering caricatured a genuine crisis

Of all the mistakes, misstatements, and assorted bloviations issuing from Donald Trump during the current presidential campaign, surely one of the leading head-scratchers is his May 27 assertion to the effect that “there is no drought” in California.

Let’s consider a fuller quote from Trump’s appearance (see the video below):

 “We’re going to solve your water problem — you have a water problem that is so insane, it is so ridiculous, where they’re taking the water and shoving it out to sea. And I just met with a lot of the farmers who are great people, and they're saying, we don’t even understand it…. They have farms up here, and they don’t get water. I said, ‘Oh, that’s too bad. Is it a drought?' ‘No, we have plenty of water. … We shove it out to sea.’ … The environmentalists don’t know why. They’re trying to protect a certain kind of three-inch fish. … My environmental standard is very simple. … I want clean air and clean water.”

This was a typical Trump liturgy, in that he took an extremely complicated problem and caricatured it as a simple problem, easily solved. It was also typical in that, while masquerading as the people’s friend, he actually was parroting the position of vested interests — in this case, Central Valley growers and their water suppliers, especially the giant Westlands Water District, which has been grousing for years about its drought-related reduced allocations from the federal Central Valley Project. We can glean this from the fact that Trump’s meeting with farmers had been arranged by Johnny Amaral, a local political figure who is the deputy general manager of Westlands.  

Amaral says the attendees at the meeting came from all parts of the Central Valley, not merely Westlands, and that he was the only Westlands employee in attendance. But it’s proper to observe that the politically connected Westlands usually has the political clout to get what it wants, and roping in Trump comes right out of its playbook. More on that in a moment.

A few important points leap out from Trump’s speech. First, its basic theme was that among all stakeholders in the state’s water supply, farmers should come first. This was undoubtedly gratifying for Trump’s Central Valley agricultural audience, but not especially useful for more than 30 million residents who depend on the same water sources to live, or those who gain their livelihoods from fishing, whether in rivers or, um, the sea.  

Second, Trump was parroting an old, discredited line of chatter about how environmental uses of water are all about protecting the delta smelt, that three-inch fish. Sadly, no. It’s about protecting salmon and other commercial fisheries, and the entire ecosystem on which millions of residents around and south of the Sacramento delta rely. Shortchanging that ecosystem means dirtier water and dirtier air, which Trump claimed to be serious about.

Finally, the drought is real. The farmers who got Trump’s ear managed to fill it with abject flapdoodle about how 2016 isn’t a drought year, since some reservoirs have filled so high they’ve had to be siphoned down to make room for spring runoffs.

But only an innocent would take this at face value. The truth is that the state has been in severe drought for five years straight, and indications are that the coming year will again be dry, thanks to the periodic Pacific condition known as La Niña (think of it as the mirror image of wet-year El Niños). 

Amaral told me, indeed, that the 50 farmers who met with Trump on May 27 gave him a more nuanced view of the situation than he gave to his audience in Fresno. 

“Over the long term,” Amaral acknowledges, “everyone should expect a shortage of water. And 2012, ’13, ’14 — those were dry years. But anyone who talks about a drought in 2016 isn’t being fair with the public.”

Amaral says he reached out to both the Trump and Clinton presidential campaigns, offering to introduce them to the growers’ viewpoint, which is that “the Central Valley is not out of water because of the drought, but because the water is mismanaged.” Only Trump responded. But surely Amaral had to know that when the farmers’ views got passed through the Trump wringer, they’d come out hopelessly twisted: the idea that 2016 is a wet year transformed into “there is no drought.”

The viewpoint of the growers and Westlands that “there’s enough water in the state for people, farms, businesses, and fish to coexist peacefully,” as Amaral put it — if only bureaucrats (and federal law) get out of the way — also warrants critical examination. 

Amaral’s take might be accurate, if all the stakeholders could sit down and jointly work out new allocations of existing supply, while agreeing on just compensation for transfers of historic water rights. That’s a tough job, made even tougher when uninformed politicians such as Trump airdrop into the Central Valley and declare farmers to be the most deserving water users and that allocating supply to anyone else is “ridiculous” and “insane.” 

Water officials in the state have been trying to work out a sustainable agreement on intrastate allocations from the Colorado River since the so-called Quantification Settlement Agreement was reached under the federal government’s gaze in 2003. They’ve been trying to solve the issues of statewide transfers from the delta since at least 1982, when voters rejected the Peripheral Canal for moving water from north to south. 

The truth is that climate change will likely make drought a close to permanent fact of life in California, and wet years such as 2016 merely short-term feints by Mother Nature. As water expert Jay Famiglietti of NASA and UC Irvine observed in a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, so much water disappeared from the state’s major watersheds from 2011 to 2015 that it would take “two to three more winters of at least average precipitation to bring an end to the current drought.”

Westlands, the district that Amaral represents, knows that its legal rights to available water are junior, by history and law. Unsurprisingly, it has a blinkered view of the situation, which it plainly articulated quite effectively to Trump, who came into the discussion knowing nothing. When Amaral says that the available supply is being “mismanaged,” he really means it’s not being managed in a way that Westlands prefers — one that would increase its draw or perhaps make its purchases from those with senior water rights more economical. Westlands is famous for its ability to squeeze every possible drop of water from its legal rights, and to extend those rights to the breaking point, as one can see from the extraordinarily advantageous litigation settlement it extracted from the federal government last year. (See my coverage here and here.) When it can’t operate legally, it’s not above “a little Enron accounting,” either. But its users’ place in the hierarchy of California water rights was fixed decades ago, and in some respects as long ago as the 19th century. Complaining about the delta smelt today isn’t going to fix that. 

That doesn’t mean the state and federal governments have hit on the indisputably best way to allocate an ever-scarcer resource among ever-more demanding users. Much more work has to be done to solve the riddle of California water in an era of drought. Putting one’s trust in Trump is the wrong place to start.

Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see his Facebook page, or email michael.hiltzik@latimes.com.

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