Opinion: Columnists

California in Crisis: Green state chokes off its middle class

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Opinion,Conn Carroll,Columnists,no

Fifth in a five-part series. To see the previous day's installment, click here, and to see the entire series, including stories, video and graphics, click here.

For all the bed-wetting environmentalists do over how climate change might affect the present ecosystems of California, they always seem to conveniently forget what the state looked like before it joined the Union.

Left to nature, the Los Angeles River could support maybe 250,000 people. But thanks to human terraforming, the Los Angeles Basin now supports a population of almost 4 million and an economy worth $831 billion.

Just north of Los Angeles, the San Joaquin Valley used be a barren desert. But now, thanks to human engineering, dams, canals and aqueducts have transformed the Central Valley into the richest agricultural region in the world.

None of this could be accomplished today. Los Angeles' water-fueled growth permanently altered entire habitats, including, most famously, the Owens Valley, which once supported a lake and farming community. It is now a desert.

Unfortunately, California environmentalists are trying to turn much of the Central Valley's farmland back into desert too. Thanks to the Endangered Species Act, federal courts have ordered farmers to divert hundreds of billions of gallons of water away from crops and into the Sacramento River, where it is supposed to help revive the delta smelt.

CALIFORNIA IN CRISIS
Monday: What happened to the Golden State?
Tuesday: The California spending rush
Wednesday: Big Ed's big fail: How teachers union's are destroying California's schools
Thursday: California's green jobs bust
Today: Green state chokes off its middle class
Read the entire series at this link

The diverted water has not helped the smelt much, but it has turned hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland fallow and sent unemployment in some farming communities as high as 40 percent.

California could solve this problem by building more dams, thus adding water capacity. But the state hasn't built a major new dam since 1979 and none is on the drawing board.

One reason is the California Environmental Quality Act of 1970. Modeled after the federal National Environmental Policy Act, CEQA was intended to make infrastructure planning easier. As the accompanying chart shows, it is anything but an easy law to follow. Unlike most state environmental planning laws, CEQA allows plaintiffs to recover attorney's fees from defendant infrastructure developers (whether they be state, city or private actors).

This has created an entire environmental lawsuit industry -- a very profitable one that chills development. According to the California Chamber of Commerce, CEQA has become "a morass of uncertainty for project proponents and agencies alike."

Local government smart-growth plans have made it next to impossible for developers to build single-family homes near job centers such as the Bay Area or Los Angeles. As a result, real estate prices along California's coast are among the highest in the nation, forcing many middle-class families to downsize or move elsewhere.

California's once-famous highway system is also failing to serve the state's population. According to the Federal Highway Administration, only 28 percent of the state's highways were rated in good condition in 2010. Another 48 percent of the state's highways were rated acceptable, while 24 percent were rated poor.

The highways are only expected to get worse. California's Legislative Analyst's Office estimates that $6 billion a year is needed to replace the degraded portions of the state's highways. But Gov. Jerry Brown has only budgeted $1.5 billion annually for this purpose.

Instead of spending on highways, the Democratic governor has committed $5 billion to a high-speed rail plan that was originally sold to voters as a $40 billion project. The train, which supposedly would allow riders to travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles in two hours, saw its costs balloon to more than $100 billion before its scope had to be significantly limited, reducing costs to $68 billion.

But Brown has no plan for coming up with remaining $63 billion. The project has not even broken ground yet, and if no new funding is located, state taxpayers will have wasted billions on 130 miles of track connecting Fresno and Bakersfield -- derisively described as the train to nowhere.

California's past leaders built dams, highways and cities, making their state not only a habitable place but a powerful engine for economic growth. Today they are driving out their own middle class by choking off the growth of their cities, taking away their water to save bait fish and wasting their money on vanity projects like high-speed rail. This is the real train to nowhere, and California is all aboard.

Conn Carroll (ccarroll@washingtonexaminer.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @conncarroll.

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