02/01/2014 07:08 pm ET Updated Apr 03, 2014

Farmer John and the Cow-Flop

John Boehner, it's fair to say, have never been a major player in California water policy, or even in its hyper-political expression, California's water wars. He's served on the House Agriculture Committee, and boasts of the agricultural richness of his Ohio Congressional District. But he was perfectly willing, at the end of 2013, to let the House go home without passing the Farm Bill: "The Speaker was adamant that the House would not stay in session past Dec. 13 to finish work on the legislation. 'I've made it clear that the House is going to leave next Friday,' Boehner said. 'You all know me pretty well: I say what I mean, and I mean what I say.'"

And there's nothing on his Congressional website to indicate a profound interest in the welfare of the San Joaquin Delta. So it might have seemed perplexing that he suddenly popped up in Bakersfield a few weeks ago to announce his personal support for legislation to reignite California's water wars by declaring that in a looming drought catastrophe, whether you got water ought to depend on whom your district voted for.

Boehner didn't say as much -- and he might not even admit it -- but the bill he endorsed basically says that Californians who need water to manufacture computers, entice tourists, provide apartment dwellers with showers, catch salmon or grow high value crops like asparagus should get much less in a crisis, and Californians who grow cotton or alfalfa, and live in heavily Republican Congressional districts, should be bailed out.

California is suffering October in January. The standard greeting this month when you meet a friend is "Do you like the (70 degrees and sunny) weather?" "No, it petrifies me." 2013 was the driest year since water records began. Governor Brown reluctantly declared a state emergency, calling the obvious drought -- a drought.

Already the damage is mounting. Ski resorts have close to zero snow. Crops are blossoming too early, vulnerable to frosts. Reservoirs are bathtub rings.

Along the California coast, the Coho Salmon have gathered, waiting for the pulse of winter rains that leads them up their home streams to spawn. Without rains, biologists suspect that
the entire species south of the Golden Gate may go extinct -- hundreds of fish runs wiped out in a single year.

You don't need to fall back on global warming as an explanation -- the tree-ring records strongly suggest that the twentieth century climate of California was a wetter than normal anomaly.

Brown did the right thing declaring a drought. But his ongoing water proposals do far too little to deal with the state's three water truths: California depletes more groundwater than it restores, has allocated more water than it will have, and wastes more than its economy can withstand. Instead of solving these problems, Brown has focused on refighting a battle he lost in his first tenure in Sacramento: to resolve the gnarly problem of how to best transport water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for delivery further South. Brown's solution -- tunnels -- are expensive and unpopular. Just like his 1970's foray, the Peripheral Canal, the Governor's new proposal fails to recognize that California has a water allocation and a water waste problem that must be solved before it can rationally plan water distribution. There is no agreement on how much water his tunnels should carry or where it should end up -- which makes it impossible to achieve consensus on how they should be designed or operated.

The drought could give him a chance to be bolder, and potentially more successful. One of the things you look for in a drought is a way to bring people together to share, and overcome, the reality that there is not enough water for anyone's historic expectations. That's what makes Farmer John's Boehner's intervention -- now embodied in House legislation -- so unhelpful. Boehner's speech had not a single word of concern for California's fishing communities, or for the vegetable growers of the Delta, the electronics manufacturers in Silicon Valley, the ski operators of the Sierra Nevada or the cattlemen of the northern coastal valleys. By over-promising deliveries to water wasting agriculture, Boehner's proposal even threatens the remaining Republican suburban base in Southern California with more severe rationing.

Boehner has no doubt been told this, but he chose to inject himself in Bakersfield like a city slicker in fancy shoes crossing a cow pasture. Here's a reason that makes logic of this -- if a peculiar DC style of logic. Boehner intends to be more cooperative in resolving issues like the Debt Ceiling and the Farm Bill than Tea Party members of his caucus like. Rural Representatives like Devin Nunes are his potential allies in this fight. Boehner knows that his all-the-water-for-cotton bill is not going to end up on the President's desk -- it's a message, not a serious legislative ploy. Efforts by California Republicans to insert their provisions into the Farm Bill were rebuffed even in the House. So without really doing anything, he can show he's a hard liner on an issue that rural Californians in his caucus care intensely about.

As Congressman George Miller, who has led the Northern California team at water negotiating tables for decades, commented, Boehner's proposal " has little or nothing to do with water policy in the state" and everything to do with the politics of the Republican caucus. (Miller is retiring.)

Miller fears that the effort will "pull the pin on the grenade" and make it impossible for the state to come together to deal with both the immediate drought and the longer term water challenge -- let's hope that Boehner merely messes up his Don Draper pants and shoes with the classic risk from venturing into unknown pastures -- the cow flop.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope spent the last 18 years of his career at the Sierra Club as CEO and chairman. He's now the principal advisor at Inside Straight Strategies, looking for the underlying economics that link sustainability and economic development. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber -- of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book