California Government Ethics: Water Sprinklers During A Drought…In The Rain

The catastrophic shortage of water in California has prompted rationing and the looming prospect of permanent changes to the state’s economy and lifestyle. Yet this week a citizen with a cellphone captured video of California Department of Transportation sprinklers sewing the precious fluid along a freeway…as a light rain fell following a night of showers. Meanwhile, along the freeways, message boards are warning motorists of the importance of responsible water use in the drought, stating “Severe Drought. Limit Outdoor Watering.”

In my business and corporate ethics programs, I often use a hypothetical based on a true incident at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in which the staff was told that there would have to be a freeze on raises and new hiring because of financial challenges facing the association. They were told that everyone would have to sacrifice for the vital mission of the Chamber. That same week, the General Counsel’s office received a long-delayed remodeling, with expensive new furniture, artwork and carpeting. Morale plummeted, and the absence of trust in management was palpable. I use the incident to demonstrate the consequences of leadership hypocrisy and absence of integrity, when those in power hold themselves to different, and lower, standards than they claim to champion.

What California did was far, far worse.

Such blatant defiance of its own words and policies shows a government that is arrogant, dishonest, and in this case, incompetent. The only possible public response to this is cynicism, distrust, and civil disobedience. There is no excuse for such incompetence, and the only remedy, and it’s not much of one, would be for government officials to make heads roll, apologize profusely, and pledge that the state would live by the same rules it is imposing on business and citizens.

Incredibly, the state’s response was to try to justify watering grass, in the rain, during a drought. “There are a number of reasons why we have to water our vegetation in Los Angeles, a lot of places where the vegetation actually provides erosion control,” Patrick Chandler, a department of transportation spokesperson  told KCAL9. “We have to have erosion control there or the vegetation to hold them in place.”

The simple answer to that is: “We don’t care.” Everyone in the state has important uses for water that it is curtailing to cope with the drought. How dare the government so shamelessly act as if its water use should continue as if California was Atlantis, while the peasants take short showers, let their lawns turn brown, and empty their swimming pools? As for the little matter of watering the grass in the rain, the state explains that there are computer programming issues that make it difficult to shut off scheduled sprinkles when Mother Nature is already doing the job.

That’s not an excuse, that’s a confession. “We’re incompetent” is the message. California’s dependence on limited water resources is hardly new: Remember “Chinatown”? Irresponsible planning and inexcusable inattention to detail by government planners and bureaucrats is one reason why California is de-hydrating up now.

Californians have supported the state’s entrenched, profligate, ideologically obsessed and inept government for decades; our sympathy for their plight should be restrained. For me, an incident like the hypocritical sprinklers would be a tipping point, just as that office renovation was when I worked at the Chamber of Commerce.

The question is whether Californians are so devoted to rationalizing Benign Big Brother Government no matter how inept it is that there can’t be a tipping point. If so, they deserve to dry up.

36 thoughts on “California Government Ethics: Water Sprinklers During A Drought…In The Rain

  1. I agree that the optics are terrible, but I think more is being made of this than is justified.

    That vegetation holds erosion in check? It’s absolutely true. especially on steep cuts like the one shown. Without the vegetation, that rain could easily wash the soils into the roadway, at risk of life and property.

    When California has the damaging flash floods/debris flows/landslides, it’s generally due to lack of vegetation (burned up in the preceding year’s fires). SoCal soils aren’t made of the best. most stable stuff on earth.

    Too, you can bet those sprinklers are on automated cycles and it’s probably been a very long time since anyone last gave them much thought. That’s one of the purposes of automation. Perhaps it would be nice if someone in the highway department figured that given the drought this type of image could cause a shit show, but… I’d be really surprised if even all-the-children-are-above-average Ethics Alarms readers would have thought of it.

    Watering the lawn on freeway slopes is a symptom, not the disease. The real disease is that millions of people live in a desert environment and assume that they have a right to as much water as they desire. It’s especially mindblowing in places like Palm Springs, where arrow-straight property lines delineate desert and (artificial) tropical rainforest.

    • If the optics are terrible, then the policy is terrible. Even if, in the abstract, the practice is justifiable, its damage to public trust and respect for law is not worth it. And obviously watering in the rain can’t be excused.

      • “If the optics are terrible, then the policy is terrible.”

        You sure you want to hang your hat on that statement?

        Aren’t half the posts you write, Jack, a counter-example to that? The optics were terrible with 12 Angry Men; with Trayvon Martin; and with the police in Ferguson.

        You write a lot about how we need to see past the optic hype and look go principles. This surely looks bad, but as Arthur notes, erosion control is real.

        Malcolm Gladwell has a great New Yorker piece right now about the frustration engineers feel with the “optics” of things; case example being the 70s flap about the Ford Pinto which, by all objective data, was no better or worse than any other small car, all of which were far less harmful than other automobile design policy issues.

        But the optics, the optics!

        Bad optics don’t make for good policy, I’d hazard to offer.

        • None of your examples relate to government policy. You will note that I said policy. I didn’t say ” if someone looks guilty, they are guilty.” Government, by its own stated ethical standards, must avoid the appearance of impropriety.

          I don’t see the Pinto example as relevant either. Reasonable design trade-offs weren’t the issue in that case; a management memo that said “Let ’em burn!” was. The same was true of the McDonald’s coffee case…and neither was government policy. My business version of the statement would be “Bad optics are bad business.” Now I know you don’t disagree with that.

        • Sure, Phlinn, there are other methods of bank stabilization. They tend to be more expensive, and aren’t as visually appealing – though given the fact that California has seen extended droughts more serious than this one in its natural history, what we’re seeing is short-sightedness on a grand scale, because these would seem to have been a reasonable option. Though as I mentioned earlier, California has short-sightedly set things up under the assumption that there’d always be water available.

          And Jack, one bit of info missing from the story was how much rain had fallen. Ski areas make snow during snowstorms in order to have it later, for example. The story DID make clear that there are systems available that lock out watering if sufficient rain has fallen. Not sure if that’s the case here.

  2. I have nothing to say in defense of California. Except that it’s wonderful for all the reasons that have nothing to do with the people. Also, most of the dysfunction is concentrated geographically in about 3 places.

  3. Or, as I asked my son when he was arguing in favor of having the government run the entire nation’s healthcare, “Been to the department of motor vehicles lately? You want going to the doctor’s to be like getting your driver’s license renewed?”

  4. The real problem is that water, unlike oil, is not privatized. You do not see any laws calling for mandatory cuts on oil use.

    Lopsided Bureaucratic Rationing Won’t Cure California’s Water Crisis
    What’s needed is market pricing

    This wouldn’t be so bad if senior users could sell their surplus water to those who needed it. But that’s not how it works. Instead, what they don’t use one year, they lose the next — creating a massive incentive for overuse.

    What’s more, many farmers and property owners pay nothing but the cost of a well to draw groundwater — and even that is sometimes subsidized. The upshot is the classic “tragedy of the commons,” with farmers in the Central Valley able to suck out water to their heart’s content, endangering aquifers.

    In other areas, you do have to pay for water — but the pricing is extremely skewed. Farmers in California’s Imperial Irrigation District, who buy water from the Colorado River aqueduct, pay $20 per acre-feet, less than a tenth of what it can cost in San Diego. And it’s all thanks to sweet deals they’ve obtained from the government.

    Cheap agricultural water has led to the insanity of a desert like California becoming one of the world’s chief producers of water-intensive crops, such as rice and alfalfa. George Mason University economist Alex Tabarrok estimates that if farms used just 12.5 percent less water, California could increase the amount available for industrial and residential use by half.

    And although residential users pay more for water than farmers, they still pay below-market prices. Sacramento homes pay a flat rate for their water, no matter how much they consume. They don’t even have meters. In Fresno, which gets less than 11 inches of rain a year, monthly water bills for families are sometimes only a third of those in Boston, which gets four times more rain.

    In sum, just privatize our water resources and remove all restrictions on water use. Prices will sort things out, just as they do with oil.

    Do people not understand the concept of a free market?

    • If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

      Look further into economics than the simple free market model and you’ll encounter a thing called Natural Monopoly. It’s a well respected idea in the field. It basically says that some goods, left to the devices of the market, will of their own accord very naturally and very quickly devolve into a monopoly, unless prevented by some (presumably governmental) countervailing force.

      In fact, the most common example cited is water. Seriously – can you imagine what would happen to water markets if all regulation were removed, and we were left only with price? It’s pretty predictable; someone with a ton of money, good political connections, great business instincts and no conscience would start buying up all the water sources, and having cornered them, start to price gouge.

      The problem right now is with a series of uncoordinated agencies and authorities. The answer is to allow more coordination, not less accountability.

      Similar exercise: imagine if airlines were completely deregulated, and could choose flights and airports just based on price. The result is predictable: instant monopolistic agreement on routes, and an oligopolistic industry structure.

      Business hates competition; look at any corporate strategy book. What happens in natural monopolies is you get zero competition, very quickly. You can’t have competition if the players collude; you need a ref. In the case of water, the problem is we’ve got too many refs, and no head umpire.

      • Price gouging is better than using coercion and fines to reduce water use.

        As an aside, water is fungible. Desalination as an alternate source of water, one which is not used because the price is too low. But if there is price gouging, then that will remove deterrents from people desalinating water,.

        • Could you expound a bit? I remember seeing a desalination plant in GITMO that had been just sitting there for years. They had water barged in from Stateside, and probably still do. Never got a definitive answer as to why.

          • Hmm, now that my conspiracy gears are turning, I wonder if this was actually a Soylent Green-type factory? Makes sense. Lots of hungry people we could sell it to at prices they can afford, and where did those 50,000 migrants go? Monsanto is probably bankrolling this, and George Soros. I wonder if the Haitian pattys are a darker green than the Cubans?

              • It’s all spelled out in The Audacity of Hope, plain as day, if you cover page 66 in citric acid and read it upside down.

              • To further elaborate my point, imagine, if you will, that people predict that California’s milk production would be at historic lows for various reasons.

                Here is what we would expect to not happen. We would not expect mandatory reductions on milk consumption from the state government. There will not be laws telling us how much milk we can drink per day, how much cheese we can have on a pizza, how much cheese we can put on our pasta. There would not be any laws against cooking cheeseburgers, nor any laws against using sour cream in tacoes and nachoes, nor any laws against making ice cream.

                Instead, prices would simply rise. In the immediate term, many people will cut back on milk and milk products because of the higher prices. Some people will only drink milk for breakfast every other day instead iof every day, Some people will use margarine instead of butter, other people will use soy milk. Some restaurants will add a surcharge for including milk-based products like cheese and sour cream into the food that they sell.

                and that is not the end of the story. Out-of-state dairy farmers will be willing to sell their milk to California, a trade only profitable at higher prices.

                Why should not similar principles apply to water? Water, like milk, should be a free market commodity that should know no borders.

                • “Why should not similar principles apply to water? ”

                  Two reasons for starters.
                  1. You can make more cows; you can’t make more groundwater or snowpack.
                  2. You can ship milk and cheese across state lines; until we drive water to the price levels of milk, it’s quite prohibitive.

                  • You can ship milk and cheese across state lines; until we drive water to the price levels of milk, it’s quite prohibitive.

                    If the price of water is unregulated, then sufficient scarcity will cause water prices to rise to such a level.

                    In any event, there should be no coercive restrictions on water use; watering the lawn has no victims any more than extra cheese on a pizza.

                  • We can,. however, desalinate water from the ocean. The reason we presently do not do so is because it is unprofitable- but if prices are high enouygh, it will be profitable.

                  • 1) No, you can’t just “make more cows”. You see, cows cost money also, and eventually are tied to the very same resources you’d ultimately lump with water as a “can’t make more” resource. The same economic principles apply – just one resource is closer to the initial source.

      • Can you name an actual historical instance of a natural monopoly arising and being abused without government assistance beyond just enforcing property rights? Every attempt to gain sole control of a resource that I’m aware of has failed, usually ruining the person trying to corner the market in the process.

          • No, not really. It’s questionable whether it actually got to monopoly status, given the existence of numerous competitors. If you define away that issue (even at a high of 90% market share it’s arguable, but it was down to 65% at the time of the breakup), then the question becomes whether it was abusive or not. An 80% reduction in price between entering the market and being broken up is certainly not abusive to the consumer.

            I may not agree with everything they say, but has some valid issues with the concept of a natural monopoly

            I’m generally not a fan of anti-trust law. The ethics of a business practice do not depend on the size of the company, and the legality shouldn’t either.

      • “If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

        If you really hate hammers and have an unnatural revulsion towards them, nothing looks like a nail to you, not even nails.

        That’s one of the most overused and quite frankly asinine quotes around. It’s well poisoning at it’s best, designed to imply a person proposing a solution is just a moron who can’t think outside the box, when in reality, they probably have a great solution, you just hate the solution.

        “Look further into economics than the simple free market model and you’ll encounter a thing called Natural Monopoly. It’s a well respected idea in the field. It basically says that some goods, left to the devices of the market, will of their own accord very naturally and very quickly devolve into a monopoly, unless prevented by some (presumably governmental) countervailing force.”

        Believe it or not, monopolies aren’t necessarily bad, especially not monopolies rising out of the Free Market. The earliest instances of monopolies almost to a t, continued dropping prices, which only benefits the consumer… that is, the person for which the Free Market exists.

        Now it is easy to decry monopolies, given the modern view of them. But we don’t exist in a Free Market. The monopolies we see, which do increase prices like crazy, are all in bed with the Government (your hammer, which remarkably does little to nails but mangle them up), and can never be dislodged.

    • I remember how this worked when I was in the Navy. I was the supply petty officer as a collateral duty on a couple occasions, and whatever I spent that fiscal year, I’d get the following year. You HAD to spend every penny in your budget it you wanted a contingency surplus. You wouldn’t believe the crap we accumulated because of that policy.

  5. Well, I am afraid California is getting what they deserve. When NASA told them they had only 18 months of surface water left if the drought continued, California’s biggest concern was building a $70 billion high speed rail system from LA to San Francisco. That’s right, the whole state is about to become uninhabitable and they are worried about how to better let people waste fuel. Their second biggest concern seemed to be attracting more illegal immigrants to use the water they don’t have.

    When, 6 months later, NASA informed them that they had 12 months of surface water left, and only then, did they seem to do anything. This is a longstanding and long approaching crisis and they did nothing about it. I’m sure it is because they expect the US government to step and and magically ‘fix it’. They can’t restrict water usage because they don’t use water meters. That’s right, they live in the desert and they pay $50/month for unlimited water and there’s nothing the state can do about it. They are trying to implement other, water saving measures (only now) and are finding that they have to deal with court challenges. The sprinklers in the rain is a minor thing. Only in the last few months have they taken action to keep cities from fining people who DON’T water their lawns. That’s right, in a historic drought, in a desert, cities were fining people who let their lawn go brown.

    Give me a break. I live in a wetter climate than they do and we have water restrictions every summer when it gets hot. I haven’t ever watered my lawn, it is drought resistant, and it eventually goes brown (dormant) and comes back when it rains again.

    I can’t believe people haven’t been moving out in droves. I have noticed several large companies (like Toyota) leaving the state and I understand why they want to be low-key about it (if there is a panic, they won’t be able to find a sucker to buy their soon-worthless property). I am worried that this is going to destroy the US, however. Think about how overvalued California real estate is. I assume California isn’t going to do anything substantial until the taps stop running. Then people will have to leave and California property will suddenly become worthless. Do you think the people in California are going to keep paying the mortgage on their now-worthless homes? No, they will ask for a bailout. There are 11.5 million household units in California with an average value (for property taxes) of $200,000. That makes the total value $2.3 trillion. That easily could be $5 trillion market value and that is just the residential property. This will cause the banks to collapse or cripple the weak-willed government that tries to reimburse them.

    I say we fix the problem by giving Southern California back to Mexico. That should make everyone happy. The Californians no longer have to be a part of this racist country that they despise, Mexico gets some major-league sports teams, the NBA becomes international, California’s governments will fit in with the culture of corruption and incompetence in Mexico, and we don’t have to pay for their elitist arrogance. Win-win!

  6. Erm…

    Struggling to come to …wretch… California’s defense. Yak .

    But, ugh, ok, I will conditionally give them benefit of the doubt on “erosion control” IF and only IF they were having to follow some vague EPA driven regulation. And working the Corps of Engineers in the past, I am aware that there are numerous regulations on erosion control…

    There’s a good chance they were trapped by the national government on this…

    Lemme go get a puke bucket.

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