I recently stayed up far too late watching the Real Housewives of some city or another. It was like watching a slow-motion train wreck. While there were many opportunities to avert disaster, the players seemed to choose the wrong path every time – histrionics do, after all, make for far higher ratings than sensible problem-solving. And then it hit me: it was just like California water politics, with way more sparkly stilettos and elaborate up-dos.
California water politics certainly has its share of drama queens. You have the type who labels anyone who disagrees with them a Nazi or the most-reviled tyrant of the moment. You have those who love to repeat baseless rumors – 40,000 jobs lost to save six fish, anyone? – in a transparent effort to turn an angry mob on their hapless target. Others would rather see their neighbor’s well go dry before allowing regulators – who always arrive in black helicopters in these minds’ eyes – to monitor the level of our common store of groundwater. And then there are those who would travel thousands of miles just to storm out of a meeting in a dramatic tour de force.
These are the players who tend to receive most of the air time in the world of California water. But these water buffaloes are about as “real” as the housewives on Bravo, who belittle the hard and important work performed by actual housewives of raising the next generation and generally caring for everyone around them. The showboating tactics of “The Real Buffaloes of California Water” do not reflect the vast majority of people working hard to protect California’s precious rivers and streams and to ensure a stable water supply now and well into the future. Their antics do a disservice to the serious issues and concerns that these reasonable men and women are trying to solve. And the attention that they receive threatens to derail cooperative problem-solving and throw us headlong into the path of that oncoming train.
The challenges facing California water policy are substantial. Our fishing communities and Native American tribes struggle mightily as many of California’s salmon runs dwindle to a tiny fraction of what they once were. The fortunes of our fishing industry now rise and fall with the fate of the one remaining stock that is viable enough (for the moment) to stay off the endangered species list. The flood threats facing the Delta, including Sacramento, are as bad or worse as those produced by Hurricane Katrina. And we’ve clearly surpassed the limits of the old approach of tapping the next river system to meet the needs of California’s growing population and economy, and must now focus on improving the efficiency of use, wasting less, and reusing more as the core tenets of water supply.
Solutions to these challenges exist, but it will take the serious attention of serious people to get them implemented. We may revel in the guilty pleasure of watching The Real Buffaloes of California Water. We may even be entertained for a day. But let’s not let the show obscure the reality. There comes a time to turn it off and get down to business, and for the real water caretakers to stand up and be heard.