Infrastructure and CA Water Policy Program

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Last Wednesday, I attended a program entitled Water Conflicts and Resolution: Economy vs. Environment, at Resources for the Future in D.C. The program was part of the unveiling of a new book, Managing California’s Water: From Conflict to Reconciliation, from researchers at the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), UC Davis, and UC Riverside. The book takes a interdisciplinary perspective, including history, engineering, economics, and ecology, to the significant problem that California faces in managing its water resources in a future of limited capital investment and probable strain on infrastructure from population growth and climate change.

The program itself hosted two of the book’s authors, Ellen Hanak from PPIC and Jay Lund from UC Davis, as well as RFF Scholar Lynn Scarlett and DOI’s Letty Belin. In following the book’s interdisciplinary approach, the topics of conversation were broad:

  • the history of California’s massive water infrastructure,
  • the sometimes dueling missions of supplying water and maintaining ecological health,
  • the significant degradation of California’s ecosystems over the past 30 years, especially the Central Delta,
  • the opportunity to restore ecosystem services (benefits that functional ecosystems provide) through management policies, and
  • economic and policy mechanisms that can be used to promote effective water policy.

It struck me how the presentations noted a new era of government involvement in water policy and infrastructure. In short, the era of large government building programs is over. Despite the best intentions of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), who provides the continually lousy rankings of U.S. infrastructure cited by President Obama, the capital once available for large building programs seems to have dried up. This is especially noticeable in the current fiscal climate, when a $700 billion stimulus package that contains approximately $120 billion for infrastructure upgrades seems the top of what can be feasibly passed. Despite the President’s FY12 message of investment in R&D, infrastructure, which is the boring bread and butter of economies that facilitates the ever-important virtual and in-person connections to drive business, does not receive much investment.

The presentations remarked how much of California’s highly-managed and massive water infrastructure, which systematically moves water from the Northern and Eastern parts of the state to the Southern and Coastal areas, was completed in the 1970’s, just in time for a significant shift in scientific and engineering approaches to human attempt at domination of natural ecosystems. Rather than conquering natural forces of flooding, engineers and ecologists are taking a much more nuanced view of such systems, thinking about the services that water provides for both natural and human-built environments. Why drain the swamp when it also contributes to water remediation and flood control? Retrofitting this new tactic into the legacy infrastructure was the challenge that the panelists spoke of for future urban and rural ecosystem managers. Complicating this task is effective operation within the political environments at all levels, and the usual (legitimate) complaints about coordination loomed large in trying to decipher the myriad of local, state, and federal organizations that look over water resources.

I am struck how dialogues such as this capture the maturing of America, but a maturing that will not take place gently. At the beginning of the century, the country had enormous reserves of capital built up through investments and revenues from industrialization. We built massive cities as fast as could be. <statistics>. This was followed by significant investments in urban water resources for sanitation and management, transportation and highway systems, and the gigantic build-out of the blueprints for urban-suburban regions that we find today. Now, investment has slowed, as much of this infrastructure is in place (and perhaps aging too quickly according to many). In other parts of the world, notably China, we hear weekly of the massive investments that the country is able to make in infrastructure, including building whole new cities, dams, high-speed rail, renewable energy, and everything else. The Chinese have significant amounts of capital and they are willing to spend it. As of now, the U.S. is still the noted leader in the base drivers of economic growth: innovation, education, and business creation. Thus, I am not too worried about near-term prospects. Long-term, well, that is a different story.

Nonetheless, it is wholly certain that the U.S., despite its failure to pass systematic climate change or carbon tax legislation, is far out in front of lesser-industrialized but capital rich countries on environmental protection regulations. This can be advanced one note farther, which was emphasized by the panelists of the RFF program: we are no longer speaking about just environmental protection. Ecology as a field is making a shift from restorative that attempts to re-create the past pristine ecosystem, to sustaining that maintains the best mix of natural and managed functions for indigenous species, invasives, and humans (which, as Jay Lund pointed out, may be the most invasive species of all). There is opportunity for true leadership and innovation. Moreover, the U.S. is not the leader in this regard, for countries in Western Europe have about a 200-year head start in thinking and planning in environments with less capital and greater need for cross-disciplinary approaches.

Infrastructure- remarks on lack of investment from Brookings.

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