By Patrick Ruckert
January 20, 2018
As reported by Paul Rogers of the Bay Area News Group on January 18, the staff of the California Water Commission– a body appointed by Governor Jerry Brown to determine which projects get funding from the $2.7 billion part of the $7.5 billion water bond passed in 2014 by the state’s voters– announced that none of the eleven projects being considered “provide the public benefits that their supporters claim, potentially putting their state funding at risk.”
It should be recalled that, “The (bond) measure provided money for new water treatment plants, water recycling projects, flood control projects and wetlands restoration…. The measure also provided $2.7 billion for new water storage, which is defined as dams, reservoirs and groundwater storage.”
Please note that the language of what the measure was to do, in this description of it, mentions the word water three times and includes multiple projects that have everything to do with water.
So, the proposed eleven dams, reservoirs and other water projects that would store water for the use by the state’s residents either “provided no or little public benefit,” according to the Commission. Of course, said one of the staff members, “We’re not paying for water. We’re paying for public benefits.” More on this later in this report.
If you are shaking your head at that one, you are not alone. So, let us look at how the commission is defining “public benefit.”
Here is how Rogers in his article summarizes it: “that none of the measure’s money for dams could pay for increased water storage, only other benefits, particularly environmental ones.”
And, “it requires that every storage project must be ranked by the California Water Commission with a scoring system that takes into account ‘public benefits.’” Further, “Those benefits are defined not as how much water a reservoir can hold, but rather, how much it improves recreation, like boating or hiking, flood control and environmental conditions, such as helping endangered salmon populations come back by providing cold water to streams during dry periods.”
Of course, the voters in 2014, in the midst of the worst drought in the state’s history, thought they were voting to build the infrastructure that would secure increased water storage. But, I guess they did not read the small print of the ballot initiative.
Some may call this a bait and switch scam, and they would definitely be right.
But, there is more to the story.
I was struck by two statements, one by an environmentalist, and one by one of the staff members of the Commission.
The first one may make you want to slap your forehead and say, “now that makes sense. Yes why should we think that a bond to ensure our water supplies should be about water?” Here it is as reported by Rogers: “’We’re not paying for water. We’re paying for public benefits,’ said Chris Orrock, a spokesman for the California Water Commission.”
The second statement gets at something much more fundamental and takes us back to a debate and fight that has been with us since the nation was founded. That is, what is the role of government in the funding and building of infrastructure?
First, the statement in question, as reported by Rogers: “If the state is going to put up taxpayer money for a project, it is appropriate that there be broad public benefit rather than just subsidizing private interests or agencies who have other means of getting the funding from local ratepayers,” said Kyle Jones, a policy advocate with Sierra Club California. “It’s not fair for people in Redding to subsidize a dam in Los Angeles unless the whole state is benefiting.”
Notice how Jones asserts that a project that appears to benefit a narrower interest must be in conflict with the interests of the people of the entire state. That is pure sophistry. And it was Abraham Lincoln who put that argument to rest in 1848. Here is the story, and not to overburden the reader with too much, I shall attempt to compact it. For those who wish to read the full story, or at least the Lincoln part of it, I will provide a link below.
Beginning with the first George Washington administration the question of whether or not the U.S. government, should, or was Constitutionally permitted, to fund and build public infrastructure, or as it was called in those early years, “internal improvements.” George Washington and his Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton gave an enthusiastic affirmative to that question, and even President Thomas Jefferson said yes to it during his time in office. President John Quincy Adams in the late 1820s aggressively promoted U.S. government investment in railroads, roads, ports, canals and more.
But with the Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren administrations in the 1830s into the 1840s, the argument was made, and acted upon, that it was unconstitutional for the U.S. government to do that.
That brings us to 1848 and the Presidency of Benjamin Polk. Abraham Lincoln was a freshman Congressman, and gave a speech on the floor of Congress on June 20, 1848 on the subject of “Internal Improvements.”
I shall just cite Lincoln here as he answered the complaint by the Sierra Club guy about how unfair it would be if some “special interest” benefited from a state financed project. I quote from Lincoln’s speech:
“Now for the second portion of the message—namely, that the burdens of improvements would be general, while their benefits would be local and partial, involving an obnoxious inequality. That there is some degree of truth in this position, I shall not deny. No commercial object of government patronage can be so exclusively general as to not be of some peculiar local advantage.”
Lincoln then discusses two examples, the U.S. Navy installations and improvements on the the Mississippi River and the Ohio River, concluding:
“These instances of the navy and the Mississippi River show clearly that there is something of local advantage in the most general objects. But the converse is also true. Nothing is so local as to not be of some general benefit.”
Lincoln then presents the following to illustrate his idea:
“Take, for instance, the Illinois and Michigan Canal. Considered apart from its effects, it is perfectly local. Every inch of it is within the State of Illinois. That canal was first opened for business last April. In a very few days we were all gratified to learn, among other things, that sugar had been carried from New Orleans through this canal to Buffalo in New York. This sugar took this route, doubtless, because it was cheaper than the old route. Supposing benefit of the reduction in the cost of carriage to be shared between seller and buyer, the result is that the New Orleans merchant sold his sugar a little dearer, and the people of Buffalo sweetened their coffee a little cheaper, than before,—a benefit resulting from the canal, not to Illinois, where the canal is, but to Louisiana and New York, where it is not. In other transactions Illinois will, of course, have her share, and perhaps the larger share too, of the benefits of the canal; but this instance of the sugar clearly shows that the benefits of an improvement are by no means confined to the particular locality of the improvement itself.”
Plans for new dams, reservoirs in California hit big hurdle https://www.mercurynews.com/2018/01/18/plans-to-build-new-huge-dams-and-reservoirs-in-california-hit-hurdle/
Lincoln’s Speech on Internal Improvements http://discerninghistory.com/causes/3economics/lincolns-speech-on-internal-improvements/