The following is a book report on Water and the California Dream, Historic Choices for Shaping the Future, by David Cole 2016, with some improvisation on how Sonoma County, Valley and city fit the pattern.
California history has offered a “populist promise of a better life that has been co-opted by land monopolies on a grand scale. Family-based ag with small surrounding urban communities has been drowned in sprawl and concentrated farm ownership supplied with long-distance aqueducts.” Sonoma Valley and Sonoma, since the 1970s-80s have the same basic pattern, with a wine-tourism twist; corporate interests, government backing, a few big players that manage to outmaneuver the desires of the populace, and others who seek to emulate and/or cash in on the big player’s land use inertia.
California’s land use changes have been driven by a growth dogma, that has all along been supported by calculated booster campaigns. “The attractive quality of life that went with small urban enclaves surrounded by farmlands only succumbed to the growth dogma of the land barons after ways were found to push beyond watershed limits.” The development of the Sonoma Aqueduct and concomitant growth of Sonoma Valley fits this pattern.
“Growth within limits and long-term stabilization were never tenets of the dogma.” Boosterism (economic development) continues to keep bringing people out to California, and then a resigned and captive system says, “this is the way it is”; no one steps back to reassesses the pattern. In today’s world of anthropogenic climate change and major negative systemic, human-caused costs, some serious reassessment of the growth dogma is in order.
Growth in Sonoma Valley has not been of the extreme, sprawl variety because the valley is off the beaten commuter track. Nevertheless, the following population stats show how growth correlates with regional water system development and supply. In the year 1900, the Eel River, Potter Valley Project set the stage, and then in the 1950s, things started to take off.
1900: Potter Valley Project (a diversion dam) on Eel River; “when the natural flow of the Russian River was no longer able to meet (Sonoma County) growing ag and urban demands.”
1959: Lake Mendocino created.
1963: Sonoma Aqueduct built.
1984: Lake Sonoma created. Water supply “to allow normal growth.”
2018, Sonoma Valley population is approx. 35,000. The whole valley has grown proportionally at roughly the same rate as Sonoma itself. Sonoma is currently expected to grow at about year 2000 rates.
Aqueducts, water bonds, boosters
In the history of California, water bonds to support growth were put out, and accompanied by justifying public panic campaigns. “This pattern was repeated by different water agencies and growth promoters. Propaganda told current users that their water was in danger, yet the scale of the projects was designed to enable future growth on undeveloped lands.”
California has a very nice climate and geography; it’s an attractive place to live. The Interstate Highway system was built in the 1950s; this corresponded with ag tech advances which caused a lot of rural people moved to urban areas. These trends, plus the post WW2 economic boom, and an increasing US population added up to a temptation to move to other locales in the nation. Boosters were calling from California.
Shifting economies and demographics
In Sonoma Valley, a rural, fruit packing and mixed ag tradition gave way to a grape monoculture, as fruit, nuts and dairy were more efficiently produced in the Central Valley. Now, Central Valley ag itself is at risk from both groundwater overdraft and lack of Sierra Nevada snowmelt supply. In Sonoma County, the end of the endless frontier of the Redwood Empire (timber, dairy, fish) gave way to a new boom, that of wine hospitality tourism.
Today in Sonoma and Sonoma Valley, wine tourism-based real estate promotion has caused extreme high inflation all around, and a concomitant speculation to drive prices even higher. Real estate development has pushed out of the Sonoma Aqueduct delivery area in the form of high dollar rural residential remodels, which then put a pressure on basin groundwater. Rural residential households make up almost 30% of basin groundwater use, yet the bulk of these households are exempt (because they use less than two acre feet of water per year) from groundwater regulation in the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA).
Sonoma does not have a classic, tract development growth pattern, but one that impacts surface and groundwater resources nevertheless. Negative impacts on groundwater was what the Sonoma Aqueduct was supposed to address, yet here is the valley 55 years later with persistent groundwater over-pumping issues. The Sonoma groundwater basin is classed as medium risk in SGMA. The local Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) was created, in accordance with SGMA, to address basin groundwater issues. Yet…. “growth within limits and long-term stabilization were never tenets of the dogma.”
The county building permit agency, PRMD seems to approve just about every project, the aggregate effect is of groundwater over-pumping, and no controls or limits in areas outside the aqueduct delivery area. CEQA seems to be a dance wherein limited resources are just shared at lower levels among more and more people. Damages are written off as “less than significant” because boundary areas are artificially proscribed to be too small to address actual cumulative effects.
Water is the bottom line
In Los Angeles, and California water history in general, it has been rob Peter to pay Paul. For LA, Peter was the Owens Valley and Colorado River. For San Francisco Peter was Hetch Hetchy. In Sonoma Valley, Peter was part-ways the Eel River, Potter Valley diversion dam project, and the Russian River.
“Who were the driven men, the bankers, railroad tycoons, utility magnates, real estate developers, newspaper publishers and their agents who pushed all of this? They were the 20th century beneficiaries of the land legacy inherited from the Spanish and Mexican eras.”
At the turn of the 20th century, Teddy Roosevelt envisioned the Owens Valley as homesteaded public land, he wanted to keep it protected from being monopolized by speculators. The homesteading paradigm was overrun by Gifford Pinchot and the USDA Forest Service extending federal lands out into the Owens Valley, under the pretext of the greatest good for the greatest number. The Owens River/ Mono Lake water was seen as “surplus”, wasted.
All the growth architecture, of whatever type, in the end, depends on having the water available.
Growth as good is a complex belief system not based on data
The growth combine uses rationales like greatest good for the greatest number, or for the greater good as memes and foils to instill a sense of inevitability to the whole growth dogma pattern. Impartial full cost accounting of cost and benefits is not done. Eben Fodor says, “That growth is good is a complex belief system that is not based on data.”
Speculators with short-term profit planning horizons, have been, and remain a problem preventing actual greater public good in terms of land use. “Boosters did not realize the consequences of too many people in the state; they were blinded by the short-term profits.” This is the same pattern as Sonoma Valley now, with its own flavor of monoculture unsustainability.
“There was and is far more money in subdivisions developed for many buyers than in a lesser number of farms and ranches.” “The speculators who acquired the former land grants pushed the subdivision process until it went too far.” This is classic California land use, controlled by the few, like the Rancho Period.
In place of unmitigated tract development in Sonoma Valley, tourism serves as a seasonal and monthly proxy population that comes to consume local experiences and products aimed at them. The boosterism that has drawn the tourists sets up a continuing dependency, where more and more is called for. The tourism sector’s use of water, and other systemic costs for housing, education, and wage floor, have not been well parsed out.
California Dream as marketer’s ploy
“The California Dream turned into a marketer’s ploy by the growth cartel, who had/ have little concern for actual quality of life issues… The growth machine once up and running, was relentless.” This is the exact same pattern in Sonoma Valley and with Sonoma in particular, unchecked boosterism, sanctioned by the city, steeped in growth dogma, no limits, money does the talking. Anyone challenging the growth dogma is like David against Goliath.
In the 1930, California set its sights on the Colorado River; a new water bond panic campaign was initiated. The notion of surplus water being wasted and running out to sea was invoked. The pattern, not in exact terms, overlays with the regional development of the Russian River. See the Russian River movie.
Booms and immigration, big guys make out, little guys not
California has been characterized by various booms, starting with the Gold Rush, the Cold War, the Space Race, Korean War, the Silicon Valley tech boom; these all drew in more immigrants, with the usual concomitant attractions of climate and nice geography. With urban water supplied to Sonoma Valley by the Russian River, the groundwater “saved” was then pumped for a growing wine industry, that then became the basis for its own county/ regional, “wine country” tourism boom, with immigrants coming to work in hospitality trades, as ag labor, and as caretakers of newly transplanted wealthy home owners. Immigrants came to live the good life as seen in wine country booster advertisements. In the process, actuals locals, and early-arrival-locals in the 1970s have been overrun by the boom process.
“The California Dream turned into a marketer’s ploy by the growth cartel, who had/ have little concern for actual quality of life issues… The growth machine once up and running, was relentless.”
Traffic congestion is Exhibit A of the manifestation of the deteriorating California Dream. The whole current Bay Area aggregate boom suffers from massive traffic problems, not to mention a large contribution to negative anthropogenic climate change effects with very high transportation greenhouse gas impacts.
Transportation GHG accounted for?
The failure to properly account for wine tourism transportation GHG impacts was the basis for a successful lawsuit against Sonoma County’s Climate Action 2020 plan, by Jerry Bernhaut and California River Watch. The suit basically asserted that there was too much growth dogma built into the climate plan to be actually sustainable, and challenged the CEQA streamlining, as inadequate to account for tourism sector-generated transportation GHG costs.
The growth dogma keeps on as an underlying meme to government entities and power players that is hard to crack… “home construction equals a healthy economy, growth is good.”
Sprawl, transportation, externalizing costs
In early LA development, there was a link between mass transit and sprawl: “live in the country, work in the city” was an early LA trolley motto. There were lots of lines. The ascendancy of the automobile replaced the trolley and mass transit. With the superior volition, convenience and freedom of the car, “mass transit was doomed.” At the end of the day, both cars and mass transit had about the same effect on sprawl; suburban development spread anyway. In Sonoma Valley, instead of getting endless tracts, the effect was of concentrated wealth, and hordes of tourists, and pockets of poverty with many social and environmental costs externalized.
The price of Sonoma Valley’s calculated bucolic atmosphere has essentially been to externalize the cost nexus of a higher population to other areas. This opens up the complex phenomena of NIMBYism and the role of negative name-calling employed by the growth combine. Anyone who stands against unmitigated tract development is called a “NIMBY.” Yet those against high density infill are called NIMBYs too. The upshot: the whole system has to bear the costs of unchecked boosterism versus stability and sustainability. Pushing the edges for more sprawl has proven untenable, and packing more into the cores may be just as untenable, without some sense of honestly reckoning the costs of the growth dogma.
A 1995 study sought to go beyond sprawl, to find “new patterns of growth”, this called for “smart growth”; fill in open space within developed areas, redevelop older neighborhoods, go for high density infill. “This verified the facts the growth promoters hated for the public to hear: the costs of public services and infrastructure were seldom covered by development fees and taxes to the new businesses and residents.”
As new valley market rate infill and marginal developments occurs, these projects should pay the full costs they have on the region. This is what the current nexus study by the city proposes to address: what level of fees to charge developers to pay for the corollary costs they produce? In the unincorporated Sonoma Valley, elite residents in the foothills drive up rents and property values for all. These projects should pay for this overall cost, to fund housing for the local workers, and for local services.
Subsidy pool Ponzi scheme
Enter Eben Fodor, and his thesis and book of “Better, Not Bigger.” Fodor’s studies show that “growth does not bring widespread prosperity; the burden falls on the current residents; whose taxes and fees increase to subsidize a relatively few profit takers.” Like a Ponzi scheme, “only by adding new taxpayers to the “subsidy pool” can the growth machine stay ahead of the true costs of growth.” Sonoma is now externalizing its labor and housing issues to the Springs and to other locales, even as developers tout the great advantages of their projected hotel tax revenue to the city. Fodor suggest that this is a house of mirrors strategy and wherein the true costs are not reckoned.
If the current system worked to provide widespread benefits, we would not have the housing and wage crisis we do. Fodor’s studies show that “growth does not bring widespread prosperity; the burden falls on the current residents; whose taxes and fees increase to subsidize a relatively few profit takers.”
Consultants who are hired to do CEQA studies and help approve projects likely are steeped in the growth dogma themselves. The whole ball of wax is a powerful inertia of business as usual that citizens have tried to push back on, but are usually no match for the money, inside connections, and collective buy-in to the growth dogma combine.
Stay tuned for part two of the book report.