Droughts and deficits in California

Through much of the 1990s, California suffered a money drought. By 2003, revenue had dried up severely and California seemed in terminal crisis. Then came the deluge of 2006. It rained dollars: Several big-time Silicon Valley investors cashed out, resulting in a huge boost in income tax revenue, and Sacramento was awash in money.

In response, lawmakers doled out the abundant funds to interests who believed, often correctly, that previous budgets had left them unfairly parched. But the deluge quickly ended, and the state’s situation became worse than ever because it had failed to either save the excess or change its spending ways during the unexpected year that it rained money.

This year, California has again enjoyed a money cloudburst of sorts, enjoying $6 billion in unanticipated revenue after several tough years. But the budget is in such bad shape this time around that even $6 billion is not enough to enable us to break even. Gov. Jerry Brown is wisely sticking with his plan to extend or renew some tax increases to keep the state in business.

In this state, what’s true for money is true for water. Several years of drought came to an end with this year’s unexpectedly wet winter, and several months ago Brown declared an end to the water emergency. In Los Angeles, the City Council is mulling whether to end mandatory conservation and citation programs that were put into place during the dry years. With flowers blooming in yards throughout the state, it’s only natural that Californians are now considering replanting the lawns and English flower gardens that they pulled out in favor of xeriscapes and succulents, that farmers are demanding a return to their old wasteful practices and that everyone is breathing a sigh of relief and forgetting about water shortages.


But that’s a tragic mistake. One wet year, like one good budget year, does not change reality. This year’s rains were a blip in an extended dry cycle that scientists have seen repeated throughout recent history. Experts disagree on how long these dry cycles last — 17 years? 25 years? — but most agree that California is in the midst of one and cannot count on wet winters in the near future. Meanwhile, the demand for water grows with the population, and the need to rely more heavily on Southern California’s groundwater supplies — which exist in abundance but first require expensive cleanup from years of contamination — will only increase. We still need to figure out how to get sufficient water to farms while restoring rivers and ending the degradation of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Just as Sacramento’s “extra” $6 billion can be used as either an excuse to go back to wasteful ways or as an opportunity to change, so this year’s wet winter puts the state at a crossroads.

We can foolishly revert to moist summer lawns in Los Angeles and wasted water on Central Valley farms, or we can finally focus on the unfinished business of managing water in a state that has a perpetual shortage.