In 1976 my ethnically diverse and working-class county, where blue-collar union households worked in factories and refineries, owned homes and sent their children to college, agreed to run a 6-mile fire hose long over the Richmond Bridge to supply water to California’s richest and whitest county. Marin’s vitriolic anti-housing green advocates had successfully blocked all water supply augmentation infrastructure upgrades for decades. The Marin Greens are proud to have outlawed housing in over 80% of the county and remain fair about their progressive liberalism despite federal action upholding widespread residential racial segregation (in 2010) that persisted a decade later ( 2019), and even though one of its wealthiest cities broke the state’s 50-year compliance record when it intentionally segregated its elementary schools by race (in 2019).
However, when these rich people needed water, they paid to take some of ours.
I now spend most of my time in Southern California, where I teach law students about environmental justice and civil rights, and work first to get housing approvals, then advocate for community approvals. prosecutions under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
California law makes it illegal to build homes if there is not enough water. California does not, in recorded history, have a “normal” rainfall year – we have great wet years (and great dry years) – as shown in the historical graph below. Our generally mild climate also produces seasonal rainfall, with a long dry summer sun. The Sierra Nevada snowpack stores some water, but designed and managed water storage and transport systems have been and remain essential to human survival – and upward mobility.
In the early 1970s, the state’s first 20 million, mostly white, residents built and thrived on a world-class network of reservoirs and aqueducts essential to living in a desert with wildly variable rainfall. Since then, the state has added nearly 20 million more people, almost entirely Latinos, Asians and other minorities. Beginning in the 1970s, however, politically influential white activists blocked virtually all major improvements to new water storage and distribution systems, including those essential to providing new, less well-off families with affordable and reliable water. .
Today, even moderately dry conditions (60-80%) of “normal” rainfall years are enough to trigger a new declaration of emergency, demand to reduce water use, and panicked polls ranking supply water as the primary environmental concern instead of forest fires and climate change. . Water shortages are also blocking new housing in a state with the worst housing-induced poverty rates in the United States.
Water supply, treatment and distribution systems are strongest in places serving the state’s wealthier elites, starting of course with San Francisco’s destruction of the North Valley of the National Park of Yosemite. By contrast, as the nonpartisan State of California Auditor recently reported, nearly one million Californians do not have tap water — a group made up overwhelmingly of Latinos and other communities of color in the southern and central regions of the valley.
California’s reluctance to meet the water needs of its 20 million people is a disgrace to civil rights. Millions of people suffer from Third World water poverty while activist-induced ‘water scarcity’ is used by the wealthy to prevent even affordable housing.
The rise of white environmental activism and refusal to improve critical water supply infrastructure closely follows the state’s dramatic shift from a majority white society to a majority minority society. California’s population grew to 20 million people in 1970 and was nearly 80% white. The first 20 million realized they could not thrive in a drought-prone state without building reservoirs and aqueducts to capture the highly uncertain rainfall and snowpack runoff (see chart).
In 1913, Los Angeles took over its water supply from a private water profiteer and built the first 200 miles of an aqueduct carrying water from the Owens Valley. That same year, an act of Congress allowed San Francisco to build a dam and transport pristine Sierra water from newly created Yosemite National Park, an achievement Bay Area leaders hail as their “birthright”.
State and federal projects have expanded California’s water system to more efficiently capture and transport water from the wetter northern and eastern Sierra foothills to drier, burgeoning California coastal communities and the farms of the central valley. Shasta Lake, an inland sea on the Sacramento River, was first filled in 1945. The nation’s tallest dam at Oroville was completed in 1968.
The technical challenges were immense, but the state persisted. As the water supply became more reliable, the first 20 million prospered. In 1960, homeownership rates hit California’s all-time high of nearly 60%. Unemployment fell to just 4% in 1970.
That all changed after 1970, just when California’s white population began to decline to just 35% of the state by 2020. Yet this declining minority of seniors, in the name of the environment, continues to deny the same water security enjoyed by the youngest in the state. , now majority-minority residents.
It is a shocking offense to civil rights. The last major state or federally funded reservoir was built in 1979. For nearly 50 years, even impeccably green Democratic governors like Jerry Brown Jr. and Gavin Newsom have tried unsuccessfully to build much-needed transportation. between the state and federal freshwater pumps on the south side. of the Sacramento Delta with reservoirs to the north. Even as they claim the water supply system needs upgrading as climate change causes deeper droughts, bureaucrats are draining precious water from state reservoirs for speculative species protection programs, ecologically inefficient.
In 2014 and 2018, voters approved $11.5 billion in water bonds, but only $2.7 billion was earmarked for new water storage – the vast majority was for restoration or the conservation of ecosystems. Even then, state bureaucrats ultimately refused to back two long-proposed major new reservoirs, and the smaller projects they seem willing to pursue aren’t expected to be operational for years.
If not preemptively stifled by timid officials, activists delay and often bankrupt new water facilities with environmental reviews and lawsuits that have dragged on for decades. A Huntington Beach desalination plant has been blocked by well-funded environmental opposition since 1998 and was killed earlier in 2022 by longtime members of the Coastal Anti-Growth Commission. Although Governor Newsom officially declared his support for the project, even his own commissioners disagreed. Since 2000, Israel has built 5 desalination plants producing nearly 500,000 acre-feet per year and plans to double its capacity by 2030 – and San Diego leaders have won approval for their desalination plant, but a stable clean water supply for the greater region of the state was again being killed off by the elites. Almost no banks, reservoirs, aqueducts, existing dam and reservoir expansions and other improvements survived this relentless green opposition.
California activists insist that mandatory reductions, conservation and the mislabeled potable “toilet on tap” reuse of wastewater are the only acceptable responses to the water shortage it has caused. The state’s green legislative and regulatory leaders are quietly working to impose ever more restrictive daily water use “standards” on state residents. But these measures are inherently regressive and hurt poor, minority families who already pay exorbitant rents and energy bills far more than older wealthy white homeowners. The state’s wealthy have long shown themselves willing to ignore water conservation mandates, even at the height of the worst drought in history, and simply pay more to maintain the acres of lawns and gardens that adorn their mansions.
In modern-day California, home to the nation’s largest group of billionaires, 18% of all residents cannot afford water for basic needs like cooking, laundry and drinking. More than 36% of state residents, or about 14 million people, the vast majority of whom are Latino or black, live on less than double the federal poverty level. State officials estimate that up to 34 percent of those residents need help just to cover skyrocketing water costs.
Unreliable water also reinforces racist impacts of the state on property and travel. Wealthy white residents in places like Pebble Beach, aided by docile bureaucrats and courts, are learning that “water shortage” allegations can derail the affordable housing they don’t want in their communities. Minority workers serving the wealthy are forced to live and commute from remote, underprivileged communities like Castroville, where the environment and conditions are steadily deteriorating and the less well off are burdened with rising fuel costs to work.
The state’s wealthy whites acquired their homes, raised families, and entered retirement after benefiting disproportionately from the water-engineering marvels built when they were the majority population. To this day, their signature legacy worsens the lives of California’s majority minority population by denying water, the most basic of all human and civil rights, to the state’s newest 20 million residents. The state must stop prioritizing the concerns of aging white environmentalists and work as hard as it has in the past to ensure affordable and reliable water for everyone else.
Jennifer Hernandez is a partner at Holland & Knight. Ms. Hernandez has practiced land use and environmental law for over 30 years and leads the West Coast Land Use and Environmental Group of Holland & Knight.
Photo: California Aqueduct via Wikimedia under CC 3.0 license.