Thirst­ing for di­rec­tion

Brown gives few specifics on achiev­ing wa­ter cuts dur­ing USC talk

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - CATH­LEEN DECKER cath­leen.decker@la­times.com For more on Cal­i­for­nia pol­i­tics, go to la­times.com/decker.

In his lat­est it­er­a­tion as Cal­i­for­nia’s gover­nor, Jerry Brown seems to have cracked the code of the state’s quirky pol­i­tics. The code: We’ll elect you, if you prom­ise to fix the mess and leave us alone.

That is what Brown has done, scur­ry­ing to Sacra­mento af­ter his 2010 elec­tion and tak­ing on the state’s fal­ter­ing econ­omy with lit­tle in the way of public splash. He only barely resur­faced dur­ing his re­elec­tion cam­paign. And in many ways it has worked: Cal­i­for­ni­ans’ con­fi­dence in both their own eco­nomic fu­tures and the state’s fi­nances are up, polls show, and Brown is at near record pop­u­lar­ity.

But on Tues­day night, elab­o­rat­ing at length about the drought, Brown of­fered a glimpse of the lim­its to that ap­proach when a cri­sis de­mands crisp march­ing or­ders from a leader.

Brown has al­ways had the ca­pac­ity to be fas­ci­nat­ing and mad­den­ing in the same in­stant, and he was both dur­ing an hour of ques­tion­ing at USC by Los An­ge­les Times Pub­lisher Austin Beut­ner.

The gover­nor of­fered lit­tle in the way of ad­vice for Cal­i­for­ni­ans won­der­ing how, ex­actly, to trim a quar­ter of their wa­ter us­age, the level nec­es­sary statewide to sat­isfy his plan. In­stead, there was a lot of Brown-speak, ex­pla­na­tions of the nu­ances needed to forge po­lit­i­cal so­lu­tions and airy so­lil­o­quies that seemed in­tended to avoid nasty specifics.

The gover­nor’s drought plan would seem to re­quire him to take a whip to the state’s wa­ter wasters — at least the ur­ban ones — but he was far more em­phatic and en­er­getic when talk­ing up the threat of cli­mate change, for ex­am­ple, than in deal­ing with the drought.

It’s true that cli­mate change rep­re­sents an epochal threat, and the drought may be eased with a sea­son of good, hard rain next year. But that think­ing seems to con­tra­dict the ar­gu­ments by lo­cal and state of­fi­cials that Cal­i­for­ni­ans need to rad­i­cally change their be­hav­ior when it comes to wa­ter.

Asked whether all parts of Cal­i­for­nia, in­clud­ing agri­cul­ture, have to get used to a new nor­mal, Brown de­cried the no­tion of a “glib or pre­ma­ture an­swer” and de­fended the state’s ma­ligned almond grow­ers as con­tribut­ing “cap­i­tal and rev­enue to Cal­i­for­nia — that’s a good thing.”

“We’ve got a lot to do, and how this will shake out, it’s too early to tell,” Brown said. “If the cri­sis con­tin­ues and gets bad, more dras­tic things will be done.” Gets bad? There was a cer­tain ma­tu­rity to the ar­gu­ment that Brown was of­fer­ing: that with some­thing as im­por­tant as wa­ter, it will take a while to get all dif­fer­ent facets of the state — north and south, ag and ur­ban, Repub­li­can and Demo­crat — walk­ing in lock­step, if they ever do.

“Con­sen­sus takes time,” he said, point­ing to dis­putes in Wash­ing­ton and the Mid­dle East. “We are on a pace to forge good poli­cies go­ing for­ward.”

Ex­actly what those poli­cies will be was left to the imag­i­na­tion, though Brown re­peat­edly al­lowed that Cal­i­for­ni­ans would have to find “more el­e­gant” ways of us­ing and reusing wa­ter.

He did make clear that he knows that wa­ter — or, more to the point, the fear of los­ing ac­cess to it — strikes some el­e­men­tal chord in peo­ple, even if he de­scribed that with Brow­n­ian lo­cu­tion.

“You said wa­ter is a com­mod­ity,” he told Beut­ner. “Some peo­ple call wa­ter a right, some peo­ple call wa­ter the essence of life. Wa­ter is more than H2O; wa­ter is a bap­tism. Wa­ter is a po­etry. Wa­ter has an iconic role in hu­man his­tory and the hu­man con­di­tion, so how we play with wa­ter — it’s not like a wid­get.”

On the mat­ter of cli­mate change, though, Brown bris­tled with pas­sion.

“This is a cri­sis that’s not like a po­lit­i­cal prob­lem, Repub­li­cans, Democrats, con­ser­va­tives, lib­er­als,” he said. “This goes to the very foun­da­tion of what it means to be hu­man in a world of living things.... The drought is just a very, very tiny fore­taste of what’s to come.”

If he oc­ca­sion­ally veers into the es­o­teric, Brown has an acute and per­haps un­par­al­leled fix on the state’s po­lit­i­cal compass. Judg­ing from his re­marks, it ap­peared at times Tues­day that the gover­nor had de­cided on a car­rot-and-stick ap­proach, soft­en­ing his tough cut­back plan with gen­tle nudg­ing rather than ver­bal wrath.

He noted a re­cent poll by the Public Pol­icy In­sti­tute of Cal­i­for­nia, which found that the drought is now the top is­sue of con­cern to Cal­i­forni- ans, seen as most im­por­tant by al­most twice the per­cent­age that cited jobs and the econ­omy, usu­ally the pre­mier worry.

The gover­nor called that “a very im­por­tant mile­stone” be­cause “wa­ter is fun­da­men­tal to our lives and to our well-be­ing.”

“We don’t know quite how we’re go­ing to make this all work,” he said. “But with a lit­tle bit of pa­tience and a lot of col­lab­o­ra­tion and some good science, I’m con­fi­dent we will deal with our wa­ter prob­lem in a very suc­cess­ful way and keep the Cal­i­for­nia dream alive.”

Lawrence K. Ho Los An­ge­les Times

WHILE GOV. JERRY BROWN’S drought plan would seem to re­quire him to take a whip to the state’s wa­ter wasters, he was far more em­phatic and en­er­getic when talk­ing up the threat of cli­mate change.

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