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17th May 2022

Moving water over mountain ranges involves a huge amount of disruptive infrastructure, including reservoirs, pumping stations, tunnels, and hundreds of miles of aqueducts—and anything like the pipeline Trump proposed would require not only many billions of dollars in federal and state funding but also the support of voters in two, if not three, states. The largest ocean-water desalination plant in the country is in Carlsbad, California. (It supplies drinking water to part of San Diego County.) Desalination is energy-intensive; replacing Delta water entirely with desalinated ocean water would require the construction of many dozens of Carlsbad-size plants, plus enough new power generation to supply them. Trump isn’t the only politician who has ever believed that allowing rivers to flow into oceans is stupid. Herbert Hoover, in 1926, said, “Every drop of water that runs to the sea without yielding its full commercial returns to the nation is an economic waste.” Human needs aside, coastal ecosystems depend on inflows of fresh water. A good example is the Sea of Cortez, at the northern end of the Gulf of California. It’s the natural outlet of the Colorado River, but the Colorado is so overdrawn that it has reached it only once in the past two decades, and even then only in a relative trickle. The Colorado’s natural delta, in northern Mexico, which used to be a two-million-acre wetland, is now almost entirely a desert.

In March, the Environmental Protection Agency approved $2.2 billion in financing for a new off-stream reservoir about seventy miles from Sacramento. The stated purpose of the project—which was first proposed in the nineteen-eighties—is to store Sacramento River water during wet years and release it during dry ones. Even if the reservoir gets built, it’s unlikely to change much. As I heard Lund say to someone else, “There are fifteen hundred reservoirs in California right now. If you build a new one, you will be building it in the fifteen-hundred-and-first best location.” A better, cheaper idea might be to store water in the ground, by recharging depleted aquifers, a technique that southern Nevada and Arizona have used successfully for years—but you can’t store water you don’t have. The real problem in California and the rest of the West isn’t a shortage of water storage; it’s a shortage of water.

One morning in Sacramento, I had breakfast at the downtown Holiday Inn with Michael George, whose title is Delta watermaster. His position was created by the state legislature in 2009, as part of the Delta Reform Act—which doesn’t appear to have reformed much yet—and he’s now in the fourth year of his second four-year term. His responsibility, according to a state Web site, is “overseeing the day-to-day administration of water rights,” a job for which he was prepared by all his previous occupations: water lawyer, water-company C.E.O., public-utility executive, investment banker, college guest lecturer. His principal function as watermaster, though, has usually been as a mediator and facilitator. “The biggest shortage in the water system in California is trust,” he told me.

George believes that, because of the water issues, there’s no alternative to fallowing large amounts of farmland in the San Joaquin Valley. Urbanites will have to cut back, too—the vegetation that most Angelenos think of as the natural flora of their delightful region, including the palm and citrus trees, is both irrigation-dependent and non-native—but the only way to make truly meaningful reductions is to limit water use by agriculture. If that happens, it would be hard on farming communities (and on those of us who, at least occasionally, try to eat the way Michael Pollan and Alice Waters say we should), but the monetary impact within the state would be smaller than most people might guess, since agriculture accounts for no more than about two per cent of California’s economy. George also believes that conservationists need to be realistic about which Delta species can be saved and which can’t, and that salmon, for example, are better candidates for preservation than smelt. In other words, any credible plan for the Delta will entail significant losses by all parties, the nonhuman ones included.

All of these notions provoke angry reactions in one quarter or another, and none of them is easy to build a public campaign around. But George, when he talks about them, sounds almost optimistic. “Nobody believes in durable solutions,” he told me. “And I think that’s great because as soon as you conclude that there’s no silver bullet, and that no one thing that will save you, then maybe you will be willing to negotiate temporary solutions with people you hate and have hated for generations. Because, unless you can get together with those people, everyone is cooked.”

During a drive along the southern and eastern parts of the Delta, I saw a house whose owners had created a terraced garden and sitting area by digging into the levee directly outside their back door—a potentially catastrophic home improvement, and not just for them. After breakfast with me, George was going to look into a similar issue, at the edge of a mostly middle-class suburb called the Pocket, five miles from downtown. The Pocket lies directly across the Sacramento from the northwestern tip of the Delta, and the river semi-encircles it. It’s especially vulnerable to flooding, because the shortest path from upstream to downstream during high water is through the neighborhoods. A group of homeless people had built an encampment by digging into the side of the levee facing the river. In any flood, the encampment would be washed away, and, because of the weakened levee, the houses on the inland side would be in danger, too. (Every problem makes every other problem worse.) George, who had first noticed the encampment from his boat, was going to investigate, and try to explain.