The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jerry Brown battles Calif. water crisis created by his father, Gov. Pat Brown

Former California governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown and his wife, Bernice, after their son, Gov. Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr., was inaugurated to his second term in Sacramento in 1979. (Walter Zaboski/AP)

In 1979, a balding man with a touch of gray at the temples and glasses like windshields was holding forth on his favorite subject: H2O. Pat Brown, former governor of California — and father of current California governor Jerry Brown (D) — was asking: What’s the value of water?

“You need water,” he told the University of California’s Oral History Program, as recounted in Marc Reisner’s “Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water.” “Whatever it costs you have to pay it. … If you’re crossing the desert and you haven’t got a bottle of water, and there’s no water anyplace in sight and someone comes along and says, ‘I’ll sell you two spoonfuls of water for ten dollars,’ you’ll pay for it. The same is true in California.”

This philosophy — unlimited water for every Californian at any price — was behind Pat Brown’s massive mid-century push for water projects in the Golden State. And it’s a legacy his son, who just announced California’s first mandatory water restrictions, must endure.

“It’s a different world,” Jerry Brown said, standing in a dry stretch of the Sierra Nevadas typically under snowpack at this time of year. “We have to act differently. … The idea of your nice little green grass getting lots of water every day, that’s going to be a thing of the past.”

[Calif. governor orders statewide mandatory water restrictions]

It’s hard to imagine a worldview more at odds with that of the current governor’s father, who ran California from 1959 to 1967 and died in 1996. Pat Brown was a water evangelist — an apostle of irrigation who exploited agribusiness’s unquenchable thirst for political gain but also sort of seemed to believe the rhetoric he bought into. He threw his weight behind funding for the California Water Project, a $1.8 billion initiative that today brings water to 25 million Californians and 750,000 acres of irrigated farmland. The project brought water from Northern California, where 80 percent of the state’s precipitation is, to Southern California, where 80 percent of its demand is. 

Brown said he was out to “correct an accident of people and geography.”

“I loved building things,” he said. “I wanted to build that . . . water project. I was absolutely determined I was going to pass this California Water Project. I wanted this to be a monument to me.”

Brown succeeded — and created a nightmare. The population of California in 1959 was about 15 million. Today, about 39 million people live there, and they’re all thirsty. Meanwhile, some of them have thirsty crops. Really thirsty ones: Agriculture uses 80 percent of the state’s water. Reisner, whose 500-plus page “Cadillac Desert” described California’s water dilemma in painstaking detail more than 20 years ago, summarized the problem — explained to Pat Brown by a city engineer in the late 1950s.

“When you added a couple of lanes to a freeway or built a new bridge, cars came out of nowhere to fill them,” Reisner wrote. “It was the same with water: the more you developed, the more growth occurred, and the faster demand grew. California was now hitched to a runaway locomotive.”

Faced with historic drought, Brown’s son Jerry must now find a way to slow that locomotive down. He’s ordered cities and towns to cut water use by 25 percent, but some wondered whether his plan was a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.

“We fear he did not go far enough,” the U-T San Diego editorialized. “… Our biggest concern is that there continues to be little concentrated focus on long-term drought solutions, such as seawater desalination, water reclamation and reuse, and infrastructure to increase storage capacity.”

The paper added: “Do the top officials in California really think this is the last California drought?”

Son Jerry can’t. As environmentally conscious “Governor Moonbeam” the first time round — from 1975 to 1983 — he supported the final phase of his father’s plans. “He did it for the old man,” some said.

“Through an irony some found delicious,” Reisner wrote, “the person who took it upon himself to complete the project that Pat Brown had left unfinished was none other than the apostle of the ‘era of limits,’ the first politician to proclaim that ‘small is beautiful’ and ‘less is more’: Jerry Brown.”

But it was the father who helped bring an intractable problem to the state that the son must now solve.

“Some of my advisers came to me and said, ‘Now governor, don’t bring the water to the people, let the people go to the water,'” Pat Brown said in 1979. “‘That’s a desert down there. Ecologically, it can’t sustain the number of people that will come if you bring the water project in there.'”

Pat Brown concluded: “I don’t want all these people to go to Northern California.”