It's full speed ahead for mammoth infrastructure projects in California -- especially the ones designed to build a legacy for Governor Jerry Brown.
Officials last week released the final chapters of a draft plan that would divert water from the picturesque Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a vast Northern California estuary that has long been at the epicenter of the state's battles over water resources.
The engineering and habitat-restoration project -- now estimated to cost $24.5 billion, financed through forthcoming bond measures, federal subsidies and increased fees on water contractors and users -- involves a lot of guesswork. Brown, a Democrat, has dismissed concerns, even from within his own administration, about whether this costly endeavor will increase water supplies and save habitat for endangered fish.
The Delta's 1,000 miles of waterways that lead to San Francisco Bay are a significant water source for San Joaquin Valley farms and Southern California cities. Because of concerns over the Delta smelt, a tiny fish that is uniquely sensitive to environmental changes, judges routinely shut down the pumps at the south end of the Delta.
The Bay Delta Conservation Plan wouldn't necessarily boost the amount of water, but it would increase the reliability of supplies by building gigantic tunnels to take water under the Delta. By changing its flow, the hope is that the fish can be protected, ending the pumping shutdowns.
Yet there are concerns that the Delta will be destroyed in the process. The plan would result in the flooding of many of the estuary's islands and farms; the construction of ugly industrial facilities; and the storage of mounds of tunnel material -- all in an ecologically sensitive area.
When Brown was running for governor in 2010, conservatives feared a return of the slow-growth environmentalism he espoused in his earlier terms as governor and as attorney general (he carried out the state’s anti-global-warming law by suing localities that didn’t conform to his smart-growth vision).
But Jerry Brown isn’t governing like the old Jerry Brown. He is governing like his father, Pat Brown, who was governor from the late 1950s through the mid-1960s, an era of gigantic infrastructure-building endeavors. Paradoxically, California conservatives have used Pat Brown as someone the current slow-growth legislators should be emulating. Put that in the “be careful what you wish for” category.
Today, the 75-year-old Jerry Brown doesn’t have time to worry about the details, money or whether his proposed projects can accomplish the grand promises he makes.
“Analysis paralysis is not why I came back 30 years later to handle some of the same issues," Brown says. At his stage in life, he notes, his friends are dying, and he wants to get things done.
His eagerness may be clouding his judgment. For example, he is mocking concerns about the shoddy construction on a new span of the San Francisco Bay Bridge, despite the obvious hazards posed by cracked, rusted and improperly built structural elements. Brown has also been unyielding in his support for a high-speed rail project, which has deviated far from voters’ intent. Even former state Senator Quentin Kopp, the author of the 2008 proposition authorizing the system, opposes the latest incarnation.
No matter. Brown is burnishing the family name. As he faces his own mortality, he is imposing debt on future generations to finance projects of dubious value, including one that will damage a pristine environment. As it turns out, we were worried about the wrong Jerry Brown.
(Steven Greenhut, a regular contributor to Bloomberg View, is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.)