"People choose their villain": Chris Hayes on the epic battles surrounding California's drought

Exclusive interview: The MSNBC host talks to Salon about covering California's "water wars"

Published July 24, 2015 12:58PM (EDT)

Chris Hayes       (MSNBC/AP/Jae C. Hong/Photo montage by Salon)
Chris Hayes (MSNBC/AP/Jae C. Hong/Photo montage by Salon)

Cities versus farms. Big Ag versus endangered species. Hashtag activism versus the lawns of the 1 percent. Bottled water plants versus...pretty much everyone.

MSNBC correspondent Chris Hayes spent last week reporting from the front lines of California's "water wars," where four years of historic drought are causing a transformation both ecological and political, and forcing the state to reconsider just about everything about the way things used to be done. And if scientists' predictions of impending megadroughts pan out, this may only be the beginning. .

Having now peered into California's dried-out aquifers and flown over San Diego's raging wildfires, Hayes told Salon that the situation out West really is as bad as what you've heard, if not worse. But there's a difference between catastrophe and apocalypse -- and despite what he himself was inclined to believe, he said, California isn't a lost cause -- yet. The Golden State's future depends on its population's capacity to conserve their resources, to find a way to make market prices reflect water scarcity, to innovate their way to solutions that, we can only hope, won't cause new environmental disasters in their quest to solve the existing ones.

You can watch all of the segments from the week-long special here; read on for Salon's conversation with Hayes on the drought, the "cartoon villains" driving the public debate over what should be done and the latest news from a state grappling with an extreme new normal. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity:

Going out to California, did most of what you saw conform to the big stories we’re hearing in the media, about how disastrous the situation is and how people are handling it? Was there anything unexpected?

I think the severity has conformed to or surpassed what we’ve been told, because it’s one thing to hear about it; it’s another thing to see up close something that was a reservoir two or three years ago and is now a dry bed. The severity surpassed what I'd been reading.

In terms of surprises, the biggest surprise to me is that I think there is a sense in the framing, particularly in the East Coast, of “Is this the end of the California project? Has California hit its natural limit? It’s been running on borrowed time,” et cetera. That’s a tempting story for a lot of reasons, but I don’t think it’s right. The most surprising thing is how much slack is left in the system. Even in a place that is very dry, generally, that depends heavily on essentially two water sources -- the Sacramento River and the Colorado River -- and gets very little rain -- even under the conditions of an extreme drought, which exacerbates the natural shortage of water, there’s still a lot of water wasted, and there’s still a lot that could be done to maximize the efficiency of its use.

I noticed you kept putting that question to people -- “Is California sustainable?” -- and they kept emphasizing the idea that we just need more conservation. That doesn’t strike you as overly optimistic?

Well,  I was skeptical, but I think I've actually been converted. Mayor Garcetti in Los Angeles makes a point that L.A. went from 3 to 4 million people without using a single drop of more water. That’s amazing. You have a situation where half the farmers, I believe, are still using flood irrigation -- they haven't converted to drip. Those are just two data points that suggest that there’s a lot that can be done on the solution end and on the efficiency end.

It’s also very hard for people to get their heads around -- the scale of the issue and pie chart of usage is a very difficult thing to imagine. People think about golf courses and lawns, and it’s true; lawns, for instance, in L.A. County account for about 50 percent of residential usage. But then when you think about bottled water companies -- and we were in the factory that bottles water, and you just watch the bottled water rolling off the assembly line, and you think, “God, this is a lot of water” -- bottled water in California is less than 1 percent of just the industrial water used, which itself is a tiny fraction. So when you talk about bottled water, you’re talking about a rounding error, essentially. It’s actually really hard to get your head around the scale, and part of the reason why is that unless you are someone familiar with irrigation farming, you just have no conception of how much water that takes -- which is a ton. That’s the biggest thing the water goes to. Outside of natural conception of the scope of that, it’s very hard to have any intuitive sense of what the water is being used for and how much water we’re talking about.

So without addressing agriculture, the rest of it doesn’t really matter as much?

It all matters, because every drop of water is equal to every other drop of water. So, conservation in L.A. is really important. But in terms of understanding what the water is used for, the fact of the matter is, of the water used in California, 80 percent is used for agriculture. If you’re like me -- I grew up in the Bronx in New York City -- I don’t have a ton of familiarity with irrigation farming. It’s funny, because when we went to the farm of Central Valley… I’ve been to farms before, obviously, but those farms have been either in the Midwest, which tend to be huge commodity grains, so field after field after field of corn or wheat or soy. Or, I’ve been to farms in the Northeast, which tend to be fairly small in scale but are also in a part of the country that is relatively wet. I’d just never been to a farm like the one I went to in the Central Valley, where it essentially never rains, and they grow these kinds of speciality produce, like cantaloupes or almonds or cherries, and they use these huge irrigation canals. I just hadn't actually ever seen that up close.

What was interesting to me about your visit to the Nestle Waters bottling plant was that the company's supply chain director couldn’t offer a good justification for that use of water, aside from the fact that people want to drink it. It seemed conform to that idea of what you called them: "cartoon villains."

We didn’t want to give people the wrong impression, because the fact of the matter is, as I said, as a percentage of the total it’s essentially a rounding error. But there are certain things that pop out, like the one person on the block who keeps watering their lawn every day, who’s got a green lawn while everyone else has got a brown lawn; or Tom Selleck allegedly stealing water for his avocado farm; or the almond, which has become this sort of cartoon villain for the drought, like the nefarious and devilish almond that is sucking all the water. Bottled water factories are another one of those. It’s this really interesting process by which people have come to identify the villains of the drought. Sometimes I think that they’re accurate and sometimes they’re not. But because drought is so diffuse, and because water usage is such a hard thing to get your head around, it’s much easier to zero in on these concrete “villains.”

Can you talk a bit about this idea of price signals, and how that is determining who is able to still profit from water, who is getting the most of it?

One of the things I learned there is that the price signals are totally screwed up. Water is not just another commodity, so you wouldn't want the price for water set on an open trading market the way that soy, for instance, is set. At the same time, though, the fundamental Econ 101 insight about information and how price signals create cascades of information that are necessary for the efficient allocation of resources -- there is something to that when you think about water in California, because the means by which water is distributed is so complicated, so opaque and so tangled, that it’s very hard to transfer a price signal that would accurately reflect scarcity. What ends up happening is that the price signal on the input side is artificially suppressed, because of the nature of water rights or the power of a given lobby to be able to divert enough water toward its interest. Then, that screws up the price signal on the output side. An almond is a very thirsty crop; that should be relating in a more definitive way to what the cost is than it is right now. But because a lot of those are essentially suppressed through the mechanism by which water is distributed, there’s this mismatch in the price signaling that means that market products are not adjusting very quickly to the reality of the scarcity.

You spoke with the vice chair of the Water Board, and she admitted that the current system that’s in place isn’t set up for this scarcity, and there is a need to redo how this is regulated. Do you see the capacity for that sort of transformation to happen?

Yes, I do, because they’ve already done things that they haven’t done before, like the fact that they’re now going to do groundwater regulation, which they had resisted. Jerry Brown had that line, funnily enough, at the press conference where he announced it: “We’ve been writing this since my father was governor.” It’s the last state in the West that is putting in groundwater regulation. That was a really big logjam for a very long time, so I do think there’s unquestionably a way to which the extremity of the drought works as a political forcing mechanism.

It works in good ways and bad ways. You’re seeing it now used by Republicans in Congress to essentially gut part of the Endangered Species Act. Like I said, people choose their villain, and those can be more or less accurate, and those will have consequences for policy, depending on whether they are more or less accurate. I do think there’s political space there. In some ways, the most fascinating ending to all this might just be that we end up getting an El Niño, which increasingly looks likely, and is going to dump a huge amount of water on California. It would likely signal the end of the drought, although then cause a whole bunch of other problems, and reaffirms a point about the climate era we’re entering into, which is one just born of more extremes generally.

As you keep pointing out with this drought, there’s more to come in the future, most likely.

There’s a line in "Cadillac Desert," which I think I quoted on the air -- and this was written in '86. They're like, it’s an open question how this is going to happen, how this will all be maintained, the system, if California gets drier -- and then, in parenthesis, add: "due to carbon emissions and climate change it’s expected to get drier." That’s 30 years ago! So the modeling does suggest more extreme heat and more extreme drought.

You spoke with the former L.A. mayor about conservation and the idea that California can innovate its way out of the drought. Are you convinced that will be something we’ll see?

I think there are a lot of technical solutions that will help a lot. Orange County, for instance, is already doing waste-water treatment filtration. That’s a technology that basically exists now, and is in effect in Orange County, and is cheaper that desalinization and could be implemented fairly widely. That’s just one obvious lying fruit. It’ll be very interesting to see what happens to the desalination plant, particularly with this situation where it’s coming online just as the drought is lifting with this potential El Niño. If that happens and California is very wet, I don’t know whether there’ll be backlash against desalination.

It seems like a lot of concerns about energy and what it will do to the environment are being put aside because need for water is so intense right now.

I think that’s right, although they won those battles, in some ways, before the drought. They had to fight those 15 years of litigation and political battles. I’m very interested to see what the trajectory of that plant looks like, because it could go either way. I could imagine both a future in which there’s a lot more deployment of that technology, particularly along the coast and Southern California, or this will look antique, weird "Back to the Future," the way nuclear reactors tend to look now, 30 years from now.

By Lindsay Abrams

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