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The Razor's Edge

Water is the same. Give California two wet, snow-filled years, as we have had between 2010-2011, and we look like Ireland. This year the gleeful environmentalists will watch the Kings and San Joaquin Rivers run unimpeded from the Sierra, in all their 19th-century glory. The 1920s-era reservoirs are full; the 1960s canals brimming with water. Those who damn Henry Huntington’s wondrous 1912 Big Creek Hydroelectric Project as ecologically hurtful will be out in force sailing all summer on his beautiful manmade eponymous 1912 lake. Even the cut-off West Side farmers may get a sort of  irrigation reprieve: there is too much rather than too little water this year, as even the park benches at the lower rivers’ edges are now underwater.

But again there is no margin of error as we will soon learn again when the dry times come as they always do. We haven’t built a big new dam or a new major canal in decades as the population and its appetites soared, and the postmodern cynicism about “building things” became entrenched. So the huge snowpack this year will melt and with it millions of acre feet will flow to the ocean rather than be stored for next year. California can export $15 billion in food, and support 37 million — but only every third year on average when the snow and rain reach 125% of their yearly averages. We forget that when there is water here, there is usually money in California — more crops, more tax revenue; less pumping, less costs; more recreation, more tourist dollars. And when there is not, there is not so much.

Illegal immigration enjoys the same precariousness. I remember the days when we had somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 illegal immigrants. They were surrounded by Mexican-Americans, Asians, whites, and blacks (and by a confident culture), and so by needs learned English and assimilated, intermarried, and integrated. It was rare to find an abandoned car in your vineyard that had swerved the night before and taken out 20 vines. I heard Spanish spoken, but rarely  heard indigenous languages from Oaxaca or encountered those illiterate in both Spanish and English, who asked for translation help at a government office despite bilingual documentation.

But up that number of illegal immigrants (and with them commensurate disrespect for the federal immigration laws) to 4, 5, or perhaps even 6 million illegals, and then factor in a beleaguered second generation, whose parents were not legal, did not speak English, and did not have high-school diplomas, and we reach the proverbial tipping point. What would that look like superficially in an average week? A bag of trash stuffed with Spanish-language bills and ads tossed beside your mailbox; going to the store and hearing one English speaker among ten non-English speakers, while waiting, waiting, waiting in line as the poor checker struggles with all sorts of multiple and expired plastic food stamp cards; seeing dozens of the unemployed milling around Wal-Mart or Home Depot dour and looking for cash work; or preferring to wait for a Monday doctor visit rather than  dare go to an emergency room (the last time I tried I was considered a veritable freak for speaking English, having health insurance, and a more serious condition of a broken arm). Give California 200,000 illegals, and it assimilates them; give it over 4 million and a new ideology, and it begins to become overwhelmed.

Let us end with development. We did not object to growing to 37 million, but most certainly to accommodating them. So let us limit nasty oil pumping off shore. Let us curb awful timber cutting. Why not save the noble smelt and idle superfluous acreage? There is surely no more need for more neanderthal hydroelectric projects of the old blast-away sort. New nuclear plants would be even worse. Tasteful open spaces are great along the coastal corridor, so let us stop most new ugly housing construction there and all that it brings. Who is to say you should still live in California when someone in Oaxaca, someone far needier, cannot? I could go on, but right here, I fear, is a recipe for an energy hungry, food hungry, wood hungry, power hungry, overtaxed and undereducated state, where one cannot find an affordable house on the coast, and not sell a cheap one in the interior.

I leave on a note of optimism. All this is self-correcting. Jerry Brown cannot hike the income and sales tax much or hire legions of new SEIU employees or up dramatically the salaries of state workers or lower the standards at the UC or CSU university systems or open wide the border or cut off more water, because we know where it all leads — to pushing us either onto or over the razor's edge.