California, here we come

  • Paul Larmer


The Interior West has long regarded California as the sort of rich eccentric uncle whose peculiar behavior is an embarrassment to the rest of the family. I have some firsthand knowledge of this attitude, because I am a fourth-generation Californian, who moved to rural western Colorado back in 1992. The sidelong glances I received from a few locals during my first weeks in Colorado, and the long pauses that ensued when I revealed that I’d lived in that den of iniquity called the Bay Area, led me to urgently inquire exactly how soon I could change my license plates.

It’s not that I couldn’t sympathize with the locals’ viewpoint: The Californians pouring into the Interior West were driving up real estate prices, clogging the roads and changing the small-town culture. But the knee-jerk reaction against all things Californian seemed misguided, a convenient way to avoid looking at the whole picture. After all, the Golden State has also had positive impacts on the Rocky Mountain region.

Take water, for instance. Over the years, California, like other Western states, has ruthlessly pursued fresh water supplies, even when doing so dried up valleys, destroyed lakes and bulldozed the water rights of rural communities. But today, California is showing the rest of the West how to use water more efficiently through conservation; L.A. residents use far less water than the people of Phoenix, for example. And the state has pioneered the transfer of water rights from rural areas to rapidly growing urban centers.

California has also long been a leader in air-quality protection and the development of alternative energy sources, including wind and solar power. The state’s decision in the 1970s to implement tough air-quality standards forced car manufacturers to make cleaner vehicles. The brown clouds of pollution that shroud Denver and Salt Lake, especially in the winter, would be much browner — and much more dangerous — without California’s work in this area.

And as Ray Ring notes in a sidebar to his cover story, California has become a valuable ally to citizens fighting dozens of proposed coal-fired power plants in Idaho and elsewhere in the West. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent announcement that California will no longer purchase electricity from power plants that contribute to global warming has taken away a huge market for speculative coal-fired power plants, such as the one proposed by Sempra in Idaho’s Magic Valley. It’s likely no coincidence that, just as Idaho’s Legislature put a moratorium on the construction of new coal-fired plants, Sempra announced that it was getting out of the coal-fired power business altogether and focusing on cleaner-burning gas projects. Strong-willed citizens backed by an unfriendly marketplace make a formidable opponent.

Ring’s story shows that California’s efforts to protect the environment are more than just West Coast idealism. In actuality, they are quite pragmatic. The state — and the West as a whole — simply must innovate if it is going to accommodate a growing population without destroying its natural wealth. The uprising in Idaho shows that the West is shedding the old notion that hands-off government and unfettered industry are more important than the health of our land, air, water and communities.

Sound like the kind of thing a Californian might say? Maybe so. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all. Maybe the Rocky Mountain West has more in common with the Golden State than we like to admit.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

May 10, 2006 11:36 AM

Paul, It hardly seems polite to disagree with you when you've praised recent environmental positives here, but the truth is that California is no better off than the Rocky Mountain West with respect to the environment, or is actually worse off because of its exploding population. (Of course, there are several Californias, and the environment is valued in completely different ways in, say, the central coastal region as opposed to most of the Central Valley. Remember, please, that Richard Pombo hails from California, and he's not all that atypical of many of his Central Valley brethren.) With respect to water, in particular, California is really no more advanced than are other Western states, just differently implemented. Agriculture still uses 84 percent of the water delivered through the various federal, state, and local-district water projects in the state. Those transfers to urban areas that you praised are actually sales of the physical water. The rights remain with the agricultural water districts that sell the water. The districts own the rights to apply the water to "productive uses;" the way California law works, the districts can only keep the rights if they use them, so the contracts with urban water providers require that individual tracts be "fallowed" only a year at a time. I guess that this is a "solution," but I certainly don't see any incentives to efficient use of water in the agricultural context. As with most of the West, the federal government is deeply embedded in California water issues, and many of the most egregious water problems that we have in California result from federal policies that favor uses other than the environment. Most of those uses in Caliornia are agricultural. So we have the Westlands Water District sueing the federal government to prevent water from being released down the Trinity River to help fish, even as the West Coast salmon fishery is virtually shut down because there isn't enough water in the Klamath/Trinity basin to support enough fish to allow fishing. And we have the biggest water districts in the state (including Westlands, as well as the Metropolitan Water District, which provides wholesale water to the urban region from Ventura to San Diego) cutting a behind-closed-doors deal with federal and state water agencies to ship even more water south out of the ecologically failing Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta. If California does have any general wisdom to offer to others in the West, it is probably that most environmental problems (related to water, timber, or public land issues in general) start from agency (mis)behavior, and the necessary ingredient in finding a pro-environment solution is citizen engagement. On the other hand, the citizens in Magic Valley already get that point, and your pages show that citizens in all the Western states understand that. California's growing population makes solving the problems more urgent, and the state is (relatively speaking) awash in money, but we don't have anything really basic working for us that isn't available to citizens on most states. So you know what, you're probably right that California has more in common with the Rocky Mountain West than we like to admit. Perhaps, however, the direction of influence should be a two-headed arrow.

May 31, 2006 11:50 AM

I find it ironic that Chad Roberts' letter appears in the same issue of HCN that features an article about how the environmental movement's single-minded campaign to close down ranching, mining, and timbercutting in the West helped create the economic vacuum into which Industriual Tourism has poured. According to both Mr. Roberts and Paul Larmer, taking water out of agriculture in California and sending it to cities is a Good Thing. It is not. When water is transferred from agricultural to urban use, it means that there is that much less employment and economic activity in the rural towns adjacent to the affected agricultural land. Farmworkers don't buy groceries, growers don't buy seed or tractors, children are taken out of schools, and the only thing that grows is the burden on the county's welfare and public health facilities. Given that these towns are usually perched on the brink of collapse to begin with, it doesn't take much fallowing to cause them to dry up and blow away. It also makes it that much more likely that productive farmland will be turned into suburban sprawl, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley, which already has some of the fastest rates of growth, and some of the worst air, in the state. Meanwhile, the water that used to be growing crops is now being used to grow houses in Southern California. So we help destroy rural California and contribute to sprawl in already overburdened areas, but we sure showed those redneck farmers, didn't we? Rural towns in California may not be as picturesque as those in Colorado or Canyon Country, but they are just as much a part of the heritage of the West and deserve to be taken into consideration before myopic environmental crusades are launched.