Opinion: When times get tough it’s time to build stuff

Eighty years ago, California, like the rest of the nation, was gripped by the Great Depression. So what did we do? We went out and built Shasta Dam.
I like that story. I read it sometimes before I go to bed to restore my faith in humanity.

Of course, there’s a little more to this tale than the three-sentence punch-line above, but the great thing is, the more we delve into the details, the more we find in them a lesson to incorporate into our thinking – and doing – today.

In the early 1900s, farmers in the Central Valley had for decades been suffering the realities of California’s Mediterranean climate. On any given year, they faced the prospect of being slammed by raging winter storms and flooding or alternatively by life-choking droughts and no water for their crops. Additionally, farmers found that with increased irrigation in the valley, the reduced river flows were allowing salt water to creep into the Delta from the San Francisco Bay.

To address these problems, an almost unprecedented infrastructure project was envisioned: The construction of a huge concrete dam on the Sacramento River in the mountains north of Redding. We all know it today as the Shasta Dam.

Here’s the part of the story that really resonates today. The Shasta Dam and the connected system of aqueducts that formed the proposed State Water Plan cost a lot of money, so the politicians debated it to death for years – until 1933 when severe drought and historic unemployment combined to wake everyone up.

That year the Legislature by a narrow margin approved the selling of revenue bonds to fund the project. Unfortunately, because of the economy, California couldn’t sell the bonds (sound familiar?), so we turned to Washington, D.C., hoping that the federal government would help out. Recognizing the project’s potential for both short and long-term economic benefits, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took it over.

Ground was broken in 1937 and seven years later, a consortium of contractors that included most of the builders of Hoover Dam poured the last bucket of concrete on what was then the second highest dam with the second largest reservoir in the country.

Chief engineer Frank Crowe prophetically said: “Look at that Shasta Dam. That dam will stand there forever holding back the river. And that powerhouse will keep right on turning out juice until somebody discovers how to make power out of sunlight.”

Today, almost 70 years later, this depression-era project is still holding back floodwaters and generating clean electricity. It provides life-giving water during drought and is still the largest and single most important source of water for California’s world-class agricultural industry, which produces more than 400 commodities and nearly half of U.S.-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables.

The tea-toting politicians who sneer at the notion of rebuilding and upgrading our infrastructure as a tool of economic stimulus should remove their heads from whatever dark place they are in and get real.

If there is anything we need today, it’s the kind of leadership and vision that built these legacy infrastructure projects, which decades later are still providing the foundation for the eighth largest economy in the world.

In spite of these great projects, farmers and all Californians today still worry about drought, because there are now 38 million of us and we haven’t built a hell of a lot of infrastructure lately.

But today, unlike 80 years ago, we know a lot more about the ecology of the Delta. We know what must be done. We need a structure – a canal or tunnel – that will more effectively regulate water flowing into the Delta, so that both farmers and fish get more reliable water when they need it.

We need a system of “off-stream reservoirs” that will park large quantities of water during those years when we are fortunate enough to receive heavy rainfall, and then release it slowly during dry summer months and those troubling years of drought.

We need to do this, because if we don’t, farmers and cities will continue to stick massive wells in the ground and suck groundwater out until there is no more – and that is a looming disaster we won’t be able to repair.

Today, just like 80 years ago, we’re concerned about the cost of all this. Funny thing about infrastructure. It’s always expensive.

Two years ago, I was among a number of stakeholders that worked with the Legislature to place an $11 billion general obligation bond on the November 2012 ballot to help pay for water infrastructure improvements. It was historic and controversial. Two years later, it’s still controversial and many people wonder if it stands a chance of being approved by voters.

Although I was a strong supporter of the Water Bond, I’m not among those who insist it is the only solution. Many water agencies – and yes, farmers, too – would rather taxpayers foot the bill with GO bonds, as if those who pay taxes and those who pay water bills are somehow different people. The fact is, we all pay taxes and we all use water.

The arguments to pay for our water infrastructure needs through a well-crafted and equitable fee structure are compelling. At the end of the day, it is an approach that may also be more politically doable.

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