Wa­ter quest taps Brown’s fam­ily roots


Gov. Jerry Brown in­creas­ingly seems to be draw­ing from the past, in­spired by his pi­o­neer­ing fore­bears and com­par­ing their strug­gles with his own.

They had much tougher lives, he tells au­di­ences. Surely if they could cross the Plains in cov­ered wag­ons, tame the land and fight mos­qui­toes, he can dig two big wa­ter tun­nels and erect a bul­let train.

And re­mem­ber that Pres­i­dent Lin­coln, Brown some­times adds, boldly au­tho­rized con­struc­tion of the transcon­ti­nen­tal rail­road while wag­ing the Civil War.

Never mind that Abe and the rail­road­ers stole much of the Western right-of-way from In­di­ans.

These days, it’s not that easy. Many farm­ers around Bak­ers­field are re­fus­ing to sell out for high-speed rail. And peo­ple in the San Fer­nando Val­ley also have be­gun ve­he­mently

buck­ing the bul­let train.

In the bu­colic Sacra­mento-San Joaquin River Delta, where Brown wants to bore the hu­mon­gous wa­ter tun­nels, grow­ers and recre­ation­ists are riled up and bat­tling back.

These ob­sta­cles are noth­ing that can’t be over­come by grit, the gov­er­nor im­plies.

Speak­ing to hun­dreds of busi­ness lead­ers at an an­nual break­fast in Sacra­mento last week, Brown dis­missed the con­cept of per­fec­tion.

“What we need in the govern­ment is to build these big in­fra­struc­ture projects, take care of the ba­sic needs but don’t at­tempt to recre­ate and rein­vent the world in some utopian ef­fort to make ev­ery­thing all per­fect,” he said. “It’s not per­fect. It’s messy. There’s suf­fer­ing. In the end, we all die. When you’re 77, by the way, that’s a lit­tle more im­mi­nent than it was when I spoke to you 40 years ago.”

Brown added: “I think it is very good to chan­nel our fore­bears, who had a much tougher life with a lot less re­ward, a lot less lit­tle plea­sures. … It was work and work all the time. But they built it. … And so it’s our des­tiny and our duty to build on it.”

In that lat­ter com­ment, the gov­er­nor prob­a­bly was think­ing of his late fa­ther, Gov. Pat Brown. If his dad more than half a cen­tury ago could lead Cal­i­for­nia into build­ing a world-class wa­ter project over fierce north­ern op­po­si­tion and south­ern ap­a­thy, the son be­lieves, cer­tainly he can com­plete that trou­bled sys­tem with the delta tun­nels.

But since the 1960s, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists have wit­nessed the State Wa­ter Project’s eco­log­i­cal dam­age, es­pe­cially to the salmon fish­ery, and also seen that there’s re­ally no quench­ing of Cal­i­for­nia’s thirst, no mat­ter how many rivers and wet­lands are drained.

Per­haps it’s time to ex­pe­dite our fo­cus on de­sali­na­tion, re­cy­cling and more ju­di­cious use of wa­ter. Also, se­ri­ously get go­ing on some much gabbed-about new reser­voirs.

Re­gard­less, Brown is on a mis­sion in­spired by his fam­ily’s past.

When peo­ple ask how Brown has changed since he first was gov­er­nor in his 30s, one an­swer is that he now shows re­spect for his fore­bears.

Back then, he prac­ti­cally ig­nored his fa­ther. And I don’t re­call his ever men­tion­ing the pi­o­neers.

Re­turn­ing to his roots, the gov­er­nor and his wife, Anne Gust Brown, spent the long Me­mo­rial Day week­end in a small cabin he had built on 2,700 acres of iso­lated fam­ily-owned prop­erty in Co­lusa County.

“Right at the very spot where my fa­ther’s grand­fa­ther started a stage stop and ho­tel,” Brown told the busi­ness lead­ers.

“It’s hot, there are a lot of mos­qui­toes and when he was there, Au­gust Schuck­man, … there was no well. They had to col­lect the wa­ter on the roof and put it in a cis­tern. There was no elec­tric­ity. … The guy … lived there 35 years, died there at the age of 80.

“I’d get up in the morn­ing — it’s sur­rounded by very unique moun­tains — and as the sun comes over, I just kept think­ing about this guy, what he went through. … He had to get on a boat in Ger­many, come all the way over here on a cov­ered wagon.”

The gov­er­nor’s cabin — ba­si­cally a crude shel­ter — also has no elec­tric­ity. Or even a toi­let. There’s a nearby out­house.

But what was ac­cept­able to peo­ple liv­ing in the 1800s — or even politi­cians de­vel­op­ing wa­ter projects a half­cen­tury ago — could be sig­nif­i­cantly up­graded for life in the 21st cen­tury.

U.S. Rep. John Gara­mendi (D-Wal­nut Grove), for ex­am­ple, has been try­ing to push a cheaper, sim­pler, less land-de­struc­tive al­ter­na­tive to Brown’s delta plan. The gov­er­nor wants to bur­row two 40-foot-wide, 35-mile tun­nels un­der the delta, si­phon­ing fresh wa­ter from the Sacra­mento River to south­bound aque­ducts at a cost of $17 bil­lion.

Gara­mendi, a former lieu­tenant gov­er­nor, ad­vo­cates us­ing what’s al­ready there: 25 miles of a ship chan­nel that skirts the west side of the delta from West Sacra­mento. He’d add on a smaller, 12-mile un­der­ground pipe to the aque­ducts. The wa­ter would be fresher, he says, and the cost about one-third of the tun­nels.

State wa­ter of­fi­cials have re­jected the con­cept, say­ing it would harm en­dan­gered smelt — what few fish re­main — and also in­ter­fere with ship­ping. Gara­mendi dis­misses both ar­gu­ments and notes only about 30 ships a year use the chan­nel any­way.

“They’re stuck on the tun­nels,” Gara­mendi says. “The gov­er­nor is a dif­fi­cult per­son to talk to. He seems to be dig­ging him­self in more firmly.”

It’s ad­mirable that Brown draws strength from his fore­bears’ guts and re­solve. But he should also re­mem­ber that they were flex­i­ble and open to new ideas.

When Great-Grand­fa­ther Schuck­man re­turned to Ger­many to marry, he ditched the cov­ered wagon on his way back to Cal­i­for­nia and sailed around Cape Horn.

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