Can Jerry Brown Save America’s Garden?

Jerry Brown

I remember the first time I visited California. The palm trees, sunshine, rocky beaches and blooming flowers made me question my life choices: Why didn’t I live in California? Historically, I’m by no means the only one to feel this way. Some trace the Golden State’s golden age of growth to the early 1960s, when Pat Brown, father of current governor Jerry Brown (pictured), was California’s commander in chief. In a recent New York Times article, Adam Nagourney argues that the elder Brown’s policies are the cause of several problems wreaking havoc in the state today.

Nagourney reports that California’s population has doubled since 1959, when Pat Brown first took office, and that the state’s current water shortage may have been “driven by the aggressive growth policies advocated by [Jerry Brown’s] father during his two terms in office.” The California State Water Project, for example, was developed under his tenure. The system, the largest in the country and one of the largest in the world, provides water to 25 million people through a network of aqueducts and pumping plants, which, by redistributing water from Northern California’s lakes to Southern Cali’s deserts, makes it possible to flourish in even the state’s driest areas. And by flourish I mean live amidst lavish golf courses, spas, pools and gardens.

A dry riverbed along California’s Highway 99. Photo courtesy of usdagov/Flickr

In Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, Marc Reisner argues that “Pat Brown, who was from Northern California, deliberately pushed a water system designed to encourage population growth in Southern California.” Others, including Pat Brown, say that growth was already happening and the administration simply accommodated it. Not building water systems, so goes the claim, would have been akin to not building roads or schools. Jerry Brown understood this, but by the time he took office in 1975, he and other environmentalists had some insight into the potential consequences of unregulated growth.

And so, unlike his father, Jerry Brown focused on controlling expansion. During the younger Brown’s tenure as governor, from 1975 to 1983, he drafted more than one piece of historic legislation. Today, for example, marks the 40th anniversary of Brown signing the first law in U.S. history granting farmworkers collective bargaining rights. While other workers had been allowed to unionize in 1933 as part of the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Roosevelt administration, eager to win representatives from farm states to its cause, claimed that farmworkers did not qualify for the same benefits. By granting these workers the right to negotiate their wages, schedules and work conditions through unions, Brown set an important precedent in the state with the highest farming yields in the nation.

The trajectory of a conservative father superseded by his radical son becomes more complicated, however, with Jerry Brown’s second turn as California’s governor. Brown took office again in 2011, and three years later he vetoed a bill in the California senate that would have made it more difficult for farmers to stall contracts with workers. In 2015 Brown made headlines again when he exempted California’s farms from his mandatory water-rationing program. In response to the accusation by Martha Raddatz of ABC News that he was being soft on California farmers—who have been the topic of a lot of conversation lately—Governor Brown replied, “They’re not watering their lawn or taking longer showers. They’re providing most of the fruits and vegetables of America.” He also noted that denying water to farms would “displace hundreds of thousands of people.”

Water usage by California’s farms has become controversial during the current drought. Photo courtesy of usdagov/Flickr

California produces one third of the vegetables and two thirds of the nuts and fruits that Americans consume each year. The state’s farms use 80 percent of California’s total water per year to do it. Meanwhile, cities continue to grow, along with insatiable appetites for water-rich foods like almonds and avocados. Clearly, the issue is a complicated one, and the ideal solution—rain and snow—seems nowhere in sight. For the foreseeable future, negotiations between farms and cities is likely to become equally, if not more, important than the historical mediation between farmers and farmworkers. After all, there have to be vegetables for people to pick them.

Feature photo courtesy of Officer Phil/Flickr