California Water Governance: Some Questions

I’ve a chance to get out to California later this year and do some reporting on water issues, so I’ve been doing some reading, trying to get a better feel for where to focus my attention. This is in part driven by my belief that the West’s water issues have become inextricably linked, and to understand problems here in New Mexico I have to better understand the bigger picture.

With that in mind, I’ve a question for the California water wonks in the audience.

I’m currently making my way through the February PPIC report, which makes this point:

Most of the state’s (California’s) water management is highly decentralized, with many hundreds of local and regional agencies responsible for water supply, wastewater treatment, flood control, and related land use decisions. This system has many advantages but has often resulted in uncoordinated, fragmented water and land use decisions that contribute to chronic groundwater overdraft, impairment of watersheds by a wide range of pollutants, ineffective ecosystem management, and rapid development in poorly protected floodplains. Similar coordination failures among state and federal agencies have led to inefficiencies in reservoir operations, ecosystem management, and water marketing, among others.

It is easy to read through the coverage and literature and find a host of specific suggestions for dealing with California’s water problems:

  • more dams
  • ag conservation
  • markets
  • rip out all those damn LA lawns
  • peripheral canal
  • peripheral tunnel thingie
  • throw Westlands under the bus
  • throw the Imperial Irrigation District under the bus
  • throw those stupid bait fish under the bus
  • etc. (this list is in no way exhaustive)

What I’m baffled by is the institutional framework by which California will succeed or fail in sorting out the various choices. Where, in an institutional sense, does the conversation go on by which stakeholders come together to work these issues out?

In Arizona, for example, the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (which runs the Central Arizona Project) provides a framework by which most of the major players in the state’s water world sit down and talk about stuff. This doesn’t mean Arizona’s water problems are all unicorns and cheap beer, but it does provide a broad institutional framework. On a broader regional scale, the institutional structures around the Colorado River Compact provide such a framework. Again, no guarantee of success, but as a journalist it at least gives me a place to start.

What is California’s framework, if such a thing exists?

(Note that one potential answer may be “there is no institutional framework”, which is close to the conclusion I’ve come to regarding the similar set of questions here in New Mexico – sub/ad req. for that link.)


  1. California’s water districts and their various policies were mostly conceived decades ago when the population was much smaller and the resource of water was considered essentially infinite. The districts and policies then were a patchwork that were never intended to be an integrated policy.

    Things are different now. The population is much greater and water use has increased disproportionately. But there does not seem to be a central place for integrating and coordinating policy to deal with water – which is now a decidedly finite resource.

    The state may have, over time, come up with some integration and overall policy, but it seems the various districts still hold most of the power to make water policy. In short – there is no framework for water policy or water resource governance.

    I am from coastal southern California and went away to college in the north the year after the major drought of the late 70s. I have lived through droughts and floods in California. The counties of Marin and Santa Barbara were in huge droughts and water rationing was in effect. Lawns were brown, cars were dirty, rivers and streams were dry, people were upset but also concerned. Shortly thereafter we had a big El Niño year. Water supply was restored and everything was “back to normal.

    A few years ago, while living in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, I drove daily through huge fields of cotton that were flood-irrigated for weeks. There was no surface water for miles except for this water, so it must have come from the ground or was piped in. The surface area was enormous. And the temperatures at the time were hot, so there must have been a lot of evaporation. Later in the summer the salts on the edges of these fields were plainly obvious. But that water was probably very cheap, because those farmers were guaranteed low prices generations ago. In fact, I understand that cotton farming is also subsidized in other ways as well.

    If something seems like it can’t continue, then it can’t. California’s water usage seems to fall into that category. We have competing interests, and some major users are operating under market settings – prices and quantities – that were established generations ago when things were very different. Times change, situations change, science teaches us more, and we as a society of producers and consumers must change our ways to accommodate changing circumstances.

    It seems like we need a vision of water supply and demand, and how to allocate it to serve not only powerful interests but also defenseless and voiceless users. If there is a framework for water, I don’t see it. But we certainly need one.

  2. Off the top of my head:

    1) Quit growing cotton and alfalfa in the desert.

    3) Require residential water meters. Cities like Fresno and Sacramento are coming around – finally. What took so long?

    3) Manage groundwater on a statewide basis. Some may say that this is closing the barn door after the horses have escaped. They actually should have done this decades ago, when subsidence caused by unsustainable pumping in the CV was painfully obvious. In grad school 40 years ago I remember Professor Gene Simpson stating how badly CA handled groundwater. He must be spinning in his grave now. I doubt he will stop.

    4) In a related issue, CA should develop more ASR & AR to store excess water (should there be any – like this year’s runoff).

    5) I don’t think there should be a one-size-fits-all approach to CA water management. But there does need to be some serious coordination/oversight at the state level.

    6) California reminds me of a response Jared Diamond (‘Collapse’)gave to the question about why some societies collapsed and some didn’t: in the face of change, they failed to reexamine their core principles and make adjustments to cope with the change. California is not the only state that fits this model, but it is the most egregious example.

  3. Both Dan’s and Aquadoc’s replies are thoughtful, but don’t really get at the question you ask, except that 1/ Dan says an institutional framework is needed, and 2/ Aquadoc gives some good suggestions about what this framework would institute. As do you, of course.

    The funny but disgusting thing is, California itself has so much frigging water, and so much control of it! Greed, and the state’s sense of entitlement get in the way, though, of its ability to deal with its own water management.

    Since the opportunity to move water to it was developed, California’s mythic development has taken advantage of a supply that it didn’t contractually or inevitably control. Populations in several southwestern states, especially Arizona and Nevada, not to mention Mexico, have made this presumptive source of California water no longer there for the state’s taking.

    The only framework that can work, given the international region’s growing population, is a federally directed one that deals with development, conservation, regulation and metering, and some hard decisions about promises made and kept or not kept to property owners who either assume or insist on their right to water.

    This framework will especially but not solely affect California, since it has made so many assumptions and promises about water availability. The beginnings of this are enforcement of the Colorado River Compact, but so far, there has been little enforcement of it, but lots of jockeying around it, because everyone knows it’s coming, one way or another.

    Forget dickering between Las’s Vegas and Angeles. What about Mexico? This alone makes California’s water issues a federal matter. A moral issue, too – one that requires the most objective and insulated of leadership frameworks available — unless a global body is already necessary to deal with water in a desert questions. One day, with no action, it will be. I am sure that there are many people living in Mexico who believe it is long overdue.

  4. These comments are interesting (Dan’s on topic), but your conclusion (nobody in charge) is correct. That’s not necessarily a problem, except that there’s no coordination mechanism (like a market) to reconcile conflicting decisions. In lieu of that, there is politics and VERY narrow interests. I proposed a bang-head together conference 6 months ago ( but that was met with firm yawns.

    The current “system” is a joke and wasteful disaster.

    On your trip, I suggest that you ask any given water person how many other orgs they DO coordinate with (and how) and the ones that they SUSPECT they should coordinate with. You will not be amused.

    Oh, and I do see a role for regional water controls/regulation. The current folks in charge (DWR/SWRCB? already a problem!) are not good at doing it.

  5. Stripped of their political views, those above who comment that there is no central forum are correct, but they are incorrect in lamenting that there isn’t one – and they do not mention the many bureaucratic elements that try to impose de facto central control on California water.

    In time, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan may create a central function for one of the primary sources, but we’re not there yet. Until then, California’s global warming twins, AB 32 and SB 375, have the power to impose central planning on water consumption, under the guise of reducing GHGs, since so much energy is used to move water. Under these bills, far-flung greenfield developments with water-thirsty grass will be much harder to build. Regional Water Quality Control Boards are mandating local capture and recharge of runoff. The Coastal Commission has stopped Central Coast developments because of water supply concerns, yet also has tried to stop desalination plants which might address those concerns. And of course the Legislature, which has a public approval rating south of 10 percent, chimes in with new water management bills, seemingly daily.

    Better are the big water wholesalers like MWD and EBMUD, which can impose limits on the water provided to retailers, and also can provide rebates for water-conserving gadgets. These agencies know how much water they’re going to get, how much they will need going forward, and they’ve become good at managing demand, if not supply. Of course, environmentalists and consumer advocates are suspicious of them because any entity that handles a lot of money is always suspect.

    The hodge-podge bureaucratic approach to water master-planning is doomed to fail, if for no other reason than the heaping trash pile of similar, earlier doomed bureaucratic master-planning exercises. Look to the 1990 electrical energy crisis as a prime example of bureaucratic inability.

    The current system isn’t bad just because it’s disorganized to the point where outsiders assume it’s chaotic. Were California to have a central water planning function, it would be dominated by environmentalists seeking to stop growth at all costs, and attorneys seeking new ways to sustain lavish lifestyles through ridiculous lawsuits, and would be run by bureaucrats more fixated on process than results. As it is, without central planning, we have thousands of local governments – the form of government that is closest to the people – striving to provide water to their customers in dry times and wet. They fight and bicker with each other, but so far at least, when people turn on the spigot, water comes out. And when droughts hit, people voluntarily use less water to get us through them.

    Long live the free market!

  6. Pardon the typos. I’ve landed a new job (yay), which prohibits me from using the office computer to post on blogs (boo), so this is typed on my cell phone.

    No, there is no central authority. Each individual water district is charged with developing and managing it’s own supply. This may be a deliberate choice of the California electorate. A centralized system likely would be more deferential to the voting and economic power of the LA region, to the detriment of everyone else.

    What is ‘bad’ governance? Is it just policies you disagree with, or something more? Yes, the electorate is ill-informed. So? We live with the consequences of our decisions, and one decision of Californians has been, historically, to reject central planning of water supply. Recent Delta legislation is a huge change.

    To me, bad governance is the adoption of laws that cannot achieve the intended goal. CalFed, thus, was bad governance because it failed to solve the problem of who was in charge. The more recent legislation may work, but it’s too soon to tell.

    Putting the Delta aside, in general I’m more respectful of the electorate’s choices than either DZ or Laer. Optimizing the monetary value of water through the creation of some kind of market is one possible value. But there are other values, such as preservation of the natural environment, or of farming communities, or of the status quo, that continue to command a great deal of respect in the Legislature and are reflected in California’s water laws. I’m extremely reluctant to say that the implementation of those laws is ‘bad’ governance. It may be different than what I would do if I were in charge, but this isn’t a dictatorship and I wouldn’t be running California even if it were.

  7. @Francis — (1) Good typing! I hope you have a QUERTY. (2) I LOVE the electorate, but I’d prefer that they have a cleaner way to express their preferences. The current structure is too fragmented, bureaucratic (slow) and subject to politicians’ interpretations. I’ve talked about a “political market” in my Delta paper:

  8. RE: the comparison to Arizona. AZ has more centralized management of water (at least relative to CA) because AZ has at least two highly relevant threats to water supplies that serve to unite water interests in most of the state. Those are: 1) shortage/scarcity and 2) Indian water rights claims. There are probably more, but those are the two biggies that spring to mind. Scarcity has been a fact of life for most of the state for as long as people have tried to succeed with agricultural/developed societies. It was briefly eliminated in the Phoenix area with creation of the Salt River Project (and perhaps during the Hohokam period) and in other areas with the development of deep turbine pumps, but growth has caught up with and surpassed those developments. The CAP has given us some breathing room, but we’re starting to see some limits there as well. The threat of aboriginal claims to water served to intensify the effects of scarcity by adding new uncertainties to what had been seen as reliable long-term supplies.
    I don’t think CA has ever really faced those limitations to the same extent. Therefore, individual interests were more free to pursue their own agendas, leading to fragmented water policies and management. The Delta certainly has the potential to become a necessary focal point to bring differing interests together, but there may be too much distrust and disseminated power to get there at this point. Add in the effects of climate change, though, and you might be getting a lot closer. Real, knot-in-your-gut, scarcity will change much.

  9. DZ: voters want a bureaucratic system. Every water manager (and most elected officials) believe that the sole job of their agency is to deliver safe, affordable and reliable water on demand. Limits to growth? That’s the land use side. Nobody cares, until there’s a multi-year drought. Enviros have made some changes at the state level re long-term planning, but compliance with those laws requires its own bureaucracy. Powerful bureaucracies are inevitable in such environment.

    JF: The Delta Stewardship Council may be trying to assert power on statewide supply, but it’s already getting a pushback. See onthepublicrecord blog for more. (you should interview her.)

  10. Pingback: Thinking about the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta: click your heels together three times… : jfleck at inkstain

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