Rachel Maddow is more than just an excellent TV host and progressive hero. She’s also a policy geek who hails from Castro Valley and who, because of her father’s long experience working for East Bay MUD, knows a LOT about California water policy.
In December she was invited to give the keynote address at the annual conference of the Association of California Water Agencies in Long Beach. It was a fantastic speech, showing her range of knowledge on federal infrastructure politics and California’s water needs.
The speech is reproduced below in its entirety; I haven’t been able to find an audio or video of the address but am told it was very well received by the audience.
Maddow’s words are all the more important as California enters the third year of the most severe drought the state has faced since the American conquest. She speaks of three “water eras” and that the third, which we are now entering, will be defined by the search for “water security.” It’s a perceptive, big picture talk that sets out the fundamentals that ought to guide us as California struggles to deal with the water crisis.
The speech is also a useful counterpoint to Dan Walters’ latest column, which blames the water crisis on the state being “ungovernable.” That misses the key point – California’s ungovernability stems from the decision in 1978 to lock 20th century policy in place by giving conservatives a veto, conservatives who have defined their politics by promising to preserve the 20th century model of California life, with all of its waste of resources and unequal outcomes.
Maddow reminds us that to deal with the crisis, we need an attitudinal shift – and that shift must come as part of a breaking of the conservative veto over California politics. Only when we decide that the policies of the 20th century must be abandoned will Californians mobilize to take power away from those who so recklessly defend those policies.
RACHEL MADDOW’S SPEECH
ACWA FALL CONFERENCE
LONG BEACH, CALIFORNIA
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 3, 2008
Thank you so much for having me here — it really is an honor.
I know that I’m a new face to a lot of you here — which makes it all the more kind that you invited me to speak. But maybe it’s wise if I introduce myself a little — or at least explain how I got here.
I was born in 1973 — or as we called it in my family — the year the California Aqueduct was completed.
I went off to school — to public kindergarten — the year that Prop 13 went into effect — I can actually remember the library hours changing because they couldn’t afford to staff it anymore.
I grew up in the East Bay Municipal Utility District, and my parents still live in the house I grew up in — though now there’s a drinking water filter on a pitcher next to the sink in the kitchen, which we never had when I was a kid.
The first posters-or-anything I remember us putting up in the house were really pretty drought-related exhortations in favor of native plants. I don’t even think my mom liked California poppies, but we had posters of them all over the house because they were apparently the poster-plant for patriotic gardening in the 70s.
Our family vacations were to a place that other kids called “Yosemite” — but in our family, it was the place with the reservoir where Hetch Hetchy got its water!
We’d pile in the car and drive to grandma and grandpa’s house in San Diego, very excited for the canal-viewing opportunities from interstate 5 as we drove south.
We didn’t go so far as to have a Delta smelt as a pet or anything, but California’s water troubles… were really quite central to the way I understood the world as a kid.
And growing up in a time of drought — made a lasting impression on the wet-cement of my very young mind — it gave me a lifelong appreciation that water is rare… water is fragile… and water is power. I live on the east coast now, in New York City, where everyone thinks that time is money — to me as a kid… and I guess now, too… water always seemed like money. Water. Oil. Land. Information. Control. Things to fight over — things to fight for.
Now California’s back in drought — my parents have long-since converted everything at their house that’s convertible to low-water-use… and so have all our neighbors as well. They didn’t do that out of do-gooder hippy instincts… we don’t live in a very hippy do-gooder kind of town and we’re not a do-gooder hippy kind of family — but people have made the switch because it’s dumb not to. It’s the same for families as it is for farmers and businesses now — no one can afford to waste water… or to waste much of anything anymore.
As we head into the worst economic prospects in more-than-a-generation… as we’re back in drought in California… with a new democratically-dominant era coming to Washington… is California going come out of this drought differently than it has from others? Are big changes ahead for the perennial resource fights that have defined my life as the daughter of a California water geek?
Briefly, let me say this about the election of Barack Obama to the presidency. He ran, essentially, as the Hope candidate. I know everyone says he was the “change” candidate — but honestly, both campaigns ran their guy as the change candidate — McCain said he’d bring mavericky no-business-as-usual change to the republican party and to Washington, Obama said he’d bring change to Washington not just by changing the party in charge, but by changing from the divisiveness of typical politics.
Dick Cheney was not on the ballot this year — the chant of “four more years” was a threat and an insult, not a cheer this time around — everyone was running as a change candidate. You know, our existing President George W. Bush told an interviewer during the campaign that if he was running for a third term this year, he would have run as a change candidate!
So while this was inevitably a change election — I think it’s important to remember that Obama ran as the hope guy. The hope candidate — the don’t be afraid, don’t look down — look up, we can aspire to better things, be hopeful, brighter days ahead guy.
While that’s neat — and I do feel good about our country electing an African-American president for the first time, and for choosing the let’s-not-blame-each-other, we’re-a-united-country, we-all-need-to-pull-together candidate? While I think that’s neat and I do feel proud about that?
I do think it’s worth asking who in their right mind… would be hopeful about the country’s future with an economic outlook like this.
The economic crisis we’re in right now is so big and so dire, that you can’t use metaphors anymore to explain it. The burning house, the house of cards, dominoes, they’ve all been rendered quaint by how big a mess this is. Rather than a metaphor — how about a comparison.
If you add up the money that the federal government, the Bush Administration, has spent-or-committed-to-spend in an effort to shore up the economy THUS FAR — what we’ve spent or committed — it is greater than the entire cost of the new deal.
– It is greater than the cost of the Louisiana purchase. – It is greater than the cost of the Marshall plan. – It is greater than the cost of the Vietnam war. – It is greater than the cost of the KOREAN war. – It’s greater than the S&L scandal. – It is greater than the cost of the effort to get a rocket to the moon. – It is greater than the expenditures, actually, for the entire lifetime of NASA as an agency. – It’s greater, and I am not kidding here, it is greater than all of those things combined. – And yes, I’m adjusting those dollars for inflation.
For what we’ve spent… for all that… does it seem like we’re out of the woods?
Yeah, I know.
So it is hard to be hopeful. About the future of the country… given the scale of the economic pickle that we’re in.
But you guys here in this room — maybe ought to be hopeful… about the prospects for fixing some of the problems you’ve joined this association to confront. Oddly, the depth of the financial crisis may offer a historically-informed reason to be hopeful.
And that’s because spending on infrastructure… at the federal level… and to a certain extent at the state level, too — starts to look like a smart economic idea, in tough economic times.
In fact, when you start reading, in any field, about crumbling American infrastructure, you very frequently come across the phrase, “about 80-years-old”! So much of what we worry about, and what needs replacing, and what we wonder how we’ll ever match in terms of scale and ambition — is about 80 years old — because about 80 years ago — the second-President Roosevelt’s response to the great depression was to build build build, invest invest invest. To spend massive amounts of public money to put people to work and to pray to the gods of keynesian economic prowess, that it would work to swing the country back into the black.
The spending helped… the projects were built… and ultimately what ended the depression full-stop, was World War 2 — and a level of massive national mobilization…and spending — that also had the pleasant side effect of liberating the world from Nazi tyranny and elevating us to superpower status and a source of envy and pride for the world. (That list of all the massive spending outlays that don’t even come close to equalling what we’ve spent-or-committed-to-spend on this financial crisis? That didn’t include World War 2. We spent more on World War 2 than we’ve spend thus far on this crisis).
But in the 1930s, the Depression, the New Deal and its public-investment prescription meant a lot of very specific things to the West and water. FDR promised the new deal in 1933 — in 1934 — the Bureau of Reclamation received a budget that was half of the total budget it had received for all of the previous 31 years combined. A hundred million dollars!
In the 1930s, we saw the construction of the Central Valley Project, the Big Thompson project, the Columbia Basin, of course the Hoover Dam, completed two years ahead of schedule in 1935.
The Central Valley Project had been proposed in 1931, it had a hundred and seventy million dollars worth of bond-funding approved for it in 1933, but in the midst of the Great Depression and a dearth of investors, it wasn’t going anywhere until two years later, in 1935, when FDR approved federal funds for it.
As you all know, the CVP was a massive project, equivalent in size if not fame to the Tennessee Valley Authority — it was a huge undertaking that turned the Central Valley of California into the breadbasket of the nation. And of course brought with it some equally massive environmental challenges.
Are we due for a new New Deal as a response to this current financial crisis? If you squint and he starts smoking again, can you imagine this new guy as Barack Delano Obama? In some ways, yes. Yes, we can.
Candidate Obama talked up a fifteen billion dollar national infrastructure investment bank while he was on the campaign trail. Since the financial crisis ate trilions of dollars of investment income and stock value, since the industry we used to call “investment banking” disappeared in America, since we seriously began to ponder the very real possibility that there will no longer be any American-owned companies that make cars anymore — since jobless numbers started hitting ten, twenty, thirty year highs — you can take that 15 billion-dollar infrastructure-spending campaign-promise, add a zero on the end of it, and then start doubling.
By economic imperative if not ideological commitment, the federal government will increase, by impressive amounts, its spending on the home-grown systems that form the basis of our economy and our way of life.
I interviewed then-Senator Obama about a week before the election; I asked him about infrastructure investment — and he proactively raised the issue of the electrical grid as something that is not only antiquated and fragile, but in need of a politically-informed overhaul to bring it in line with our ambitions about diversifying our energy sources and making our energy use more sustainable.
In his first president-elect youtube radio fireside chat thingie — president-elect Obama then singled out roads and bridges and schools as targets for federal re-investment, as part of a new jobs program that he says aims to create or save 2 and a half million jobs over the next two years.
In other words, infrastructure is back. Some Republicans in Congress will oppose a lot of the new spending, but they will not be able to mount a unified opposition to the democratic-led efforts because a lot of them support it, too. Democrats like to capitulate to Republicans even when Republicans don’t have any real power to wield, so they will succeed in inflecting some of the spending bills, changing some of the areas of focus for the new investment, but they won’t stop it. There will be a big new federal-spending commitment to roads, bridges, schools, mass transit, communications, energy, and… water.
Which is the silver lining we’ve been waiting to find… around the dark, dark cloud that is this worst economic forecast … in about 80 years.
But there’s that phrase again — in about 80 years. If water-in-the-west is due once again for a round of federal investment much as it was in the last great economic downturn — should we expect that the same kind of projects will be built? Is there another Hoover Dam, another CVP, another massive water-storage diversion civil engineering monument that’s ready-to-go, agreed-to, and just waiting to be funded?
Maybe there is — I’m not dumb enough to weigh in pro- or con- on the old peripheral canal idea, so don’t try to tempt me.
But my sense is that the infamous water wars of California… of which you-all are veterans… have seasoned you… prepared you well for the big-grab, the big resource scrum that’s ahead. But I just want to interject one idea about how the politics of infrastructure and federal investment in infrastructure have recently been changing. Since the Bush Administration has been in office and the Department of Homeland Security has been created — there’s been a sort-of democratic government-in-waiting taking shape, biding its time, working on campaigns, writing think-tank articles and giving speeches — about how they’d do security differently.
It’s true in every field, actually — Tom Daschle since he lost his job as democratic leader in the senate, has been positioning himself as the democratic party’s big health-care thinker — now he’s coming back to washington as the secretary of HHS. Lawrence Summers, Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary — since he left Washington, he’s most publicly known for a really bad time as president of Harvard — but he’s also been the Democrats’ economic modeller-in-chief — very publicly transforming himself from an anti-regulation ruling-class-interests kind of guy — into the centrist reformed-deregulator, post-Rubinomics that is the hallmark of all the economists who Obama has brought to Washington now.
And on security issues… one big difference between the outgoing administration and the incoming administration… the old-school and the new-school, which you can tell if you geek out on this stuff like I do and you read the academic papers of and go to the speeches of the wonks who have been the Democratic-government-in-waiting while Bush has been in office? The difference? Is that the homeland security thinking of the new guys. Includes infrastructure.
Which means you won’t be able to compete for infrastructure resources using the same arguments that you did with the Bush administration… or that you might have used during earlier eras of federal investment like during the New Deal.
I think you can make the case that the first era in water-in-the-west was defined by development — on the national scale it was Manifest Destiny, at the local scale… it was things like the migration of people out of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake that forced the quick buildup of water infrastructure in the area where I grew up.
The second era of water-in-the-west I think has been the struggle to find sustainability — balance… to make sure that even the stakeholders who don’t use water to turn a profit, are having their interests represented in the great competition for western water.
As you know here in California, fish have much better lawyers now than they did back in the day. Sustainability and environmental concerns are not going away in California or anywhere else. Ideally we’d be moving into a time in which environmental and business concerns were not always automatically assumed to be at odds, but as long as there are scarce resources, held to a certain extent in common, which require private exploitation for necessary for-profit industries… I think there’s always going to be conflict there. Creative conflict, hopefully — but conflict. May the best lawyers win!
I’d argue now, that a third era is on us that isn’t specific to the west, but will affect how well the west does against the rest of the nation in competing for federally-funded infrastructure investment… and ultimately what kind of projects get agreed-to, funded, and built here in this era of opportunity — and that’s the issue of security. The ideas of catastrophe and resilience.
All those peat levees built oh-about-80-years-ago in the Sacramento-San-Joaquin river valley? Their failure due to earthquake, flood, or evil design? Would not only drown the islands of the delta… it would drown the islands of the delta and the delta itself under hundreds of billions of gallons of salt water. And then what would California drink?
Sure, the great aqueduct every year swallows its fair share of cars, trash and unlucky fishermen… but what if the little pipebombs those fishermen sometimes put into the aqueduct to make the fishing a little easier (and a heck of a lot more dramatic)… what if one day instead we found a smuggled warhead… a biologic agent… maybe capable of killing a lot of people… definitely capable of terrorizing a whole population.
Of the 101 chemical facilities in the United States that are considered to pose the highest risks to nearby population centers? 15 are water utilities. What if one of the 11 of those utilities that uses chlorine gas as its treatment agent… what if one of those utilities, again, due to earthquake, flood, or evil design, ended up pushing a cloud of chlorine gas downwind to the nearest population center…
Infrastructure is central to security for two reasons. One — it’s a target for terrorism for all the obvious reasons. The goal of terrorism is to generate enough social and economic disruption — to traumatize an entire population. And thereby generate political pressure to pursue draconian measures in response, that ultimately undermine the sustainability of the existing political leadership… or ultimately… that undermine the sustainability of that whole existing political system. Terrorism works like an antigen — you introduce an agent to an organism that causes the organism to turn its own resources against itself.
For that reason, we’ve seen on 9/11, in Madrid, in London, in Mumbai — low-tech coordinated terrorist assaults designed to inflict maximum civilian casualties, maximum disruption, maximum economic impact. Bin Laden, in statements since 9/11, has consistently bragged about the economic impact of the September 11th attacks — the bang for the buck — how little the operation cost them to carry out, as compared to the costs it inflicted on us… and that we later inflicted on ourselves.
So infrastructure is important to security first, because it’s an obvious target for terrorism. But infrastructure is also important to security because even if the threat does not come from terrorism, having the ability to withstand natural disaster, the strains that come from growth and development is an important indicator of national strength, and of competitive advantage.
The Council on Competitiveness last year reported on risk, security, and terrorism for the private and public sectors, and concluded that, “the ability to manage emerging risks, anticipate the interactions between different types of risk, and bounce back from disruption will be a competitive differentiator for companies and countries alike in the 21st century”.
Companies and countries alike — and I’d argue, states as well.
People and companies and the ensuing opportunities will gravitate to places that seem robust, dependable, and predictable. Not being able to manage crises? Having obvious sources of risk and potential catastrophe unattended to? Is a great excuse for any business to say bye-bye California hello Puget Sound, hello Toronto, hello Asia…
This is the new thing to understand about the new Democratic federal political scene. The idea is that things will go wrong periodically — whether by God’s design or man’s — and our ability to be resilient, to withstand a punch, to bounce back quickly, to get things back to normal — is a form of national resilient strength and national security… that puts a different cast on potentially catastrophic failure of existing infrastructure.
The guy who’s best at spelling this out is a retired Coast Guard officer from the east coast named Stephen Flynn — he wrote a book called Edge of Disaster — required reading for understanding how to argue for infrastructure investment in the new administration.
Our water infrastructure, much like our energy, communications, transportation, and emergency response systems — need to be able to stay standing, to stay operational in the face of natural disaster or man-made disaster. That means that our systems need to be strong-enough and well-maintained enough to take a punch — it also means we may need redundancy built into the system — so if critical function are incapacitated, we can swap something else in temporarily to take its place until repairs can be completed.
Even if the world were as safe as it felt when I was growing up drinking East Bay Mud tapwater… it would still be the right thing to do by America to make those kinds of investments. We skipped a generation of investment in infrastructure — we just passed the fifty-year anniversary of the Eisenhower interstate system — and those roads and bridges built for less than 200 million people … are now, at the end of their expected lifespans, serving more than THREE hundred million people… who sit in traffic a lot… and pray a lot… when we feel that truck ahead of us on the bridge making those expansion joints rumble. We’re squandering the inheritance from our smart grandparents who built this country — we’re not doing our part.
Even if the world were as safe as it felt when my mom first planted those California poppies in our back yard, investing in infrastructure would still be the right thing to do, particularly in a massive economic downturn — in order to give American business a fair-shake at competing in the modern world, just as the earlier generations of investment gave American business a huge leg-up in the world because our reliable water sources, our aquifers, or aqueducts, our dams, our electrical system, our highways, our airports and our air traffic system… they were the envy of the world.
Now, the imperative of security has added a new layer to the way that we talk about and argue for and make decisions about what gets built and what gets maintained, where the money goes. Thinking about security, thinking about catastrophe isn’t fun – it isn’t the kind of be-afraid–be-triumphant emotional whipsaw that we’ve been on, nationally, for the last seven-plus years since 9/11. But it is the grown-up way for us to move forward as a country. It’s about denying our enemies easy targets and satisfying results. And beyond terrorism, it’s about responsibility and competence and the core strength of the country.
In the big scramble for resources that’s coming, as the new administration starts thinking new-deal-ish thoughts, the choice that you guys have to make now — is whether, looking west, California will look like the land of perennial water wars and thorny politics and the-perfect-as-the-enemy-of-the-good — or whether, instead, California will be able to describe its plans for its own future, in clear terms that resonate with the new politics… that are sweeping into Washington.
It’s a real honor to have been asked to speak here today — thank you so much for having me.