Overzealous environmentalists and Democrats are mostly to blame for inaction, but not completely. Capitalizing on Republican President Richard Nixon's signing of the 1973 Endangered Species Act, animal rights groups used that new weapon to block several key California projects like building the once-planned Dos Rios and Ah Pah reservoirs, raising the Shasta Dam, and building the so-called Peripheral Canal. Ecologists and economic expansionists can debate the merits of sacrificing human water needs for protecting salmon all day. But perhaps they can all agree that the state of California should have done something to cater to a population that's almost doubled in less than half a lifetime. Either the state should have enacted much more stringent usage rules long ago or done something to stem the inflow of new residents.
Another problem with plenty of bipartisan blame to go around is California's budget woes. All the above-mentioned projects are cheaper than most other infrastructure projects like building massive new roads or high speed railways, but they still aren't free. And neither Democratic or Republican governors of the Golden State have been able to keep its budgets very golden over the years.
And that brings us back to America's general infrastructure crisis and President Donald Trump's promises to launch a massive infrastructure improvement effort. He and we may not think a lot about dams in that context, but we should since the greatest infrastructure building period in modern U.S. history was all about dams. That would be the New Deal era of the 1930s and 1940s, when dams comprised the two biggest infrastructure projects of the era. They were the Grand Coulee Dam and the Hoover Dam. They both employed tens of thousands of workers, provided irrigation for new farmland, and produced enough electricity to power entire regions of the country. More than 70 years later, all three of those things are still needed.
As President Trump now faces what may be tens of thousands of infrastructure project requests, the current emergency situation in California should put dam and reservoir building efforts front and center. That might seem like a no-brainer to non-politicos, but politics are definitely a potential barrier. With California not likely to ever vote for a Republican presidential candidate in the foreseeable future, anything other than emergency aid from the White House might also never come. And President Trump has already threatened to cut federal funding to "out of control" California in an interview with Bill O'Reilly earlier this month. Infrastructure shouldn't be held hostage by politics, but who's naive enough to believe it isn't?
In medicine, the first rule is "do no harm." And when it comes to building and rebuilding America, the first rule should be to avoid the worst disasters. Whether it's the Oroville Dam or collapsing bridges like I-35 bridge in Minneapolis 10 years ago, there are a lot of potential disasters that need to be on the top of President Trump's building plans. If the new president is truly the non-politician he often claims to be, addressing California's water fiascoes will indeed be infrastructure job #1.
Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.
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