Search DC's Musings

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Politics Like Water

Pour a glass of water on a table and as it spreads imagine instead of water it is politics, for they are similar. Without restraint it flows outward until restrained only by its own surface tension holds it back. It cuts into rock creating new streams and rivers reaching far into continents of mass. We are surrounded by it and it lays constantly under the surface. Life cannot exist without it.

Having beat the metaphor to death, the politics of water has constantly been a source of tension, money and emotions in California. Water is constantly in the news and lately the water news is as constant as it ever was.

The Gulf of Mexico oil spill is constantly in discussions in Southern California, I am guessing more so than many other areas that are not located on the Gulf itself. Our Pacific Ocean border gives us the ability to imagine tar on our own beaches, our own wonderful pelicans covered in oil, our own businesses impacted. The politics of the Gulf spill therefore are also of interest and conversation, unusually quiet in regards to any criticism of the governments response, not surprising but quiet nonetheless.

Arizona passes SB1070 and shakes up the immigration debate across the country. In Southern California that debate includes water. Our shared border with Arizona is water, the Colorado River, source of life for both states and California's agriculture in the region. Even debates on illegal immigration, state sovereignty and interstate commerce include water in California.

A continual debate and mired in politics is the Delta in Northern California. Hundreds of millions in bond measures pass to shore up levys that are as decrepit as those that failed in New Orleans several years ago. Politics of national versus state's rights and jurisdictions, economic and environmental interest lawsuits and the value of water for all versus life for a fish smaller than your finger.

Debate now begins on whether California's decade long drought is finished, living in Southern California I believe there is no drought but rather normal conditions of living in an arid climate and reclaimed desert. The drought debate comes to for as water companies have enacted policies to restrict water use, encourage conservation and raised rates.

Water. As one philosopher said, man values gold but if dying of thirst would give it all for a cup of water. It is our most precious commodity and we cannot sustain ourselves, or our lifestyle, our culture, our communities without it. We cannot make water, though we are trying to convert ocean water to potable water, we are not there yet.

We drink it, we water our property with it, we play in it, on it and under it, we eat from the bounty it sustains, we clean ourselves in it. Water is the focus of some much of our lives, and because of our ocean neighbor, perhaps more so than most parts of the country.

Locally we have had a debate for years regarding a tremendous breakwater that was constructed by the federal government over seventy years ago. The purpose of the breakwater was to create a huge anchorage for ships to make harbor in Long Beach. Then a major Navy town, sailors and soldiers embarked from Long Beach to fight in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Home to the busiest port complex in the world, ships sit at anchor in the calm waters created by the breakwater before off loading goods from abroad or loading up on American goods.

For many years some of the residents have advocated deconstructing the breakwater and letting waves come crashing on our Long Beach shores once again. The picture above is Long Beach from sometime in the 30's before the breakwater was built, and also the condos and other developments. The Remove The Breakwater (RTB) crowd posits that our community will become flush with tourism dollars as those looking to enjoy the ocean flock to Long Beach rather than Huntington Beach or the South Bay beaches.

The Long Beach is bordered by two rivers, the Los Angeles and San Gabriel. Of particular interest in this breakwater debate is the LA River, more importantly the pigs and slobs who live upstream and dump their trash, crap and junk into the river bed, or that is washed off their streets and into the gutters, through the sewer lines and into the river. Because of the lack of wave action, the RTBs argue, the junk ends up on Long Beach shores. Remove the breakwater and all that junk will no longer be on our beaches and we will have clean ocean water.

Because of the politics and water, in this case water is a giant highway and primary mode of transportation of goods, the Port of Long Beach has a somewhat complex set of policies and restrictions as to where its profits and revenues must go. One would think that because it is in Long Beach, on property in the City of Long Beach and governed by appointments from Long Beach City Hall that Long Beach would benefit greatly from the profits and revenues of the Port. One would think. Because of some politics involving water several decades ago this is not the case. From time to time the City of Long Beach must go to the Port of Long Beach, hat in hand and ask for money. Money to cover development projects such as the Aquarium of the Pacific that cannot meet bond obligations is an example. The Port is like the City's rich uncle who under certain circumstances may help you buy a new car to get to your new job.

The City of Long Beach faces its annual budget deficit crisis. I believe the current number is $19 million but I may be off a few million. We have aging infrastructure that needs replacement and repair, so much so that a bond measure was put before voters specifically to complete infrastructure repairs and replacement because decades of no vision by those at City Hall, elected and appointed, failed to properly budget such expenditures. It failed, and so we are stuck with broken sidewalks, potholed streets, unpaved alleys, failing water and sewer mains.

Last night the City Council of Long Beach voted unanimously, well almost one member was absent, to spend $4 million on a feasibility study. The $4 million price tag is half the cost of the study with the Army Corps of Engineers picking up the other half of the study. The purpose of the study is to determine if the breakwater can be reconfigured to allow waves to return to Long Beach, while protecting existing property and residences and also not interfere with the commerce of the Port by retaining a safe and calm anchorage.

Here are some issues that I have not seen addressed by those most ardent about the breakwater and want its removal.

Isn't the Army Corps of Engineers the organization that was doing feasibility studies and repairs on the levies in New Orleans?

For $8 million of government funds, i.e. taxes, i.e. funds that could be spent on other projects, all we are getting is a survey, a study, paper.

What guarantees do we have that those overseeing the survey, the Army Corps of Engineers, do not have a preconceived outcome that the breakwater cannot be reconfigured? What happens then when our community is $4 million poorer and still have a breakwater?

Assuming the desired outcome from those in favor of spending the money on the survey results, i.e. the breakwater can be reconfigured, what next? Does anyone think that to go through the reconfiguration process will not cost a billion dollars? We are talking about a government project, it costs the government $400,000 to pour concrete for a skatepark or basketball court.

Where is the money to come from to pay for reconfiguring the breakwater? Will the City of Long Beach suddenly become flush, or will the Port of Long Beach be strong armed into coughing up the cash? After all the survey will take four years, then we will have years of planning, during this time several Port Commissioners will be up for re-appointment, or replacement.

Will the number of people going to the beach increase exponentially with the sudden addition of wave action at our beaches? Or will the local economies of Seal Beach, Huntington Beach and the South Bay suffer? Does that matter?

With our civic history of not being very good at budgeting and fiscal control, a scaling back of Marine Department personnel, staffing levels at Long Beach Police Department, the maintenance department and other workers who actually work in the city instead of City Hall, looming because of deficits; where do the funds come to keep the beaches now filled with people clean and safe?

The vision of enabling waves to return to our shores while enabling the vital Port traffic to continue and the property and residences to not be washed away in storms is quite compelling. Spending $4 million of public funds in our current economic state with no plans for what happens next seems short-sighted and wasteful.

The emotion and passion of the water has overcome our city leadership to enter into the agreement for a study. I would prefer that there had been some thought as to how to pay for reconfiguration, how to pay for increased personnel needs, how to manage and mitigate possible traffic and parking issues, had been discussed and thought out before committing to spending what amounts to 25% of our current deficit. On a study.

The lack of "what next" discussions exemplifies the biggest problem with all levels of government. Consequences of decisions and votes are not looked at and analyzed. Votes are made to make supporters happy, to satisfy an immediate visceral cause, and little heed is paid for "what next." How do we pay for what needs to happen next if the study says, yes the breakwater can be reconfigured? If we do not have the answer to that question then the study is a waste of money not matter what it determines.

You've spent the $4 million, now it is up to you, the City Council, to begin work right away on answering the "what if" and "what next." You have four years.

Of course by then we will have a new members of City Council and probably a new Mayor due to term limits and it becomes their problem. Politics.


1 comment:

Bob Schilling said...

My guess is that it was easier to commit the $4 million than it was to deal with the people who want to take down the breakwater. If we cut back the breakwater, we'll proportionately lose the anchorage and the protected water for small craft.

Think of it as stimulus money. Moffat & Nichol is the premiere marine engineering consultant in the US, and they're headquartered in Long Beach. They should be the odds-on favorite to win the job, bringing something like $8 million into the local economy. Good, high-paying engineering jobs, albeit essentially temporary in nature.