The problem with Victor Davis Hanson’s case for California’s water policy failures

In a twitter discussion this morning, Brian Jordan shared a telling graphic that exposes the problems with Victor Davis Hanson’s recent City Journal essay about California’s water problems. Hanson’s argument is that California abandoned a dam-building program that, had it been pursued, would have provided the necessary storage to meet needs in this year of drought:

Had the gigantic Klamath River diversion project not likewise been canceled in the 1970s, the resulting Aw Paw reservoir would have been the state’s largest man-made reservoir. At two-thirds the size of Lake Mead, it might have stored 15 million acre-feet of water, enough to supply San Francisco for 30 years. California’s water-storage capacity would be nearly double what it is today had these plans come to fruition.

Hanson’s reflexive culture wars rhetoric makes him painful to read (“All the while, the Green activists remained blissfully unconcerned about the vast immigration into California from Latin America and Mexico that would help double the state’s population in just four decades”, capitalization in the original), but if you peel back what he’s saying, he’s really making an unexamined argument for the use of what David Zetland (pdf) calls “other people’s money” in providing water for his beloved agricultural communities in California’s Central Valley.

What he doesn’t say (and he really can’t, given the free market values that are central to his world) is that the dams whose lack he bemoans would have to have been built with “other people’s money” – the taxpayers of the state of California or the federal government. This is really expensive capacity, far beyond the financial reach of the farmers who would be using the water. And once you ask for other people’s money, their values come into play. (This would be the point, if I were adopting Hanson’s culture wars rhetoric, for the obligatory “welfare farmer” reference, but I don’t think that’s right, and I think neither that nor his “Green” and nativism frame are useful or correct – better to assume good faith on all sides.)

Jordan’s graphic of expanding storage capacity in Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District exposes the hole in Hanson’s argument:


Hanson notes Southern California’s substantial water storage reserves, but is blind to the reason they exist.

Met recognized the need for storage to provide, in drought, a more reliable supply of water for Southern California. Met spent its own money – billions over the years, according to Jordan, including hundreds of millions per year recently – to built the storage buffer that has enabled it to weather the current drought.

There are two important points here.

First, it wasn’t “other people’s money”. Metropolitan Southern California largely ponied up the cash to meet its own water security needs. This goes back to the construction of the Colorado River Aqueduct, which L.A. paid for itself.

Second, municipal users can afford to pay a lot more for water security. This is very expensive stuff, and I don’t think we’ll every see ag communities able to afford that level of reliability on their own. To get it, they need other people’s money, and at that point other people’s values come into play.


  1. For perspective, Sacramento Valley ag districts are buying into Sites Reservoir with the expectation water will cost $600-$700 per acre-foot — and that’s with the state paying half the construction cost. Very expensive water.

  2. Thanks for the link, but I have a few quibbles:
    (1) The attraction of OPM is that they are not consulted on their “values” — it’s spent for them
    (2) Met spent $3billion on DLV, but Met suffers another version of OPM. See my diss for cross-subsidies:
    (3) Also see diss on CRA. LA “paid” for it by accident. The LA Aqueduct, OTOH, LA paid for, but some think they “stole” the water in it (Owens Valley and Mono Lakes).

    I agree on your main point: “I’m in charge if you take my money.”

  3. His books on the state of the San Joaquin Valeey and how it got the way it is full of the same rhetoric: heroic Jeffersonian farmers besieged by Big Government and those hordes of People Not Like Us. I refer to “Fields without Dreams” and “Mexifornia”.

  4. DZ – I defer to your expertise on Met’s spending, thanks for that.

    On the “other people’s money” and “other people’s values”, I’m referring here to the broad community values expressed through legislation like the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act and similar state-level actions. Those collective expressions of our community values, codified on our behalf by our legislators, come into play when we want to spend money from the collective purse.

  5. The bar chart above is deceiving. It is well known that MWD started adding water storage when its historical 4.4 million acre feet of Colorado River water was reduced to an unquantifiable 550,000 AF per year of FOURTH PRIORITY RIGHTS, plus variable water available from an agricultural fallowing water conservation program with Palo Verde Irrigation District, and a groundwater storage project with the Central Arizona Water Conservation District.

    From 1986 to 1999, MWD’s CRA allotment varied from ZERO to 500,000 AF.

    MWD’s Diamond Valley Lake was finished in 2003 for $1.9 billion (NOT $3 BILLION AS MISTAKEN ABOVE). I ought to know since I worked on the project.

    The deception in the above bar chart is that it DOES NOT show how much MWD suffered in water cutbacks of CRA water over the same time period.

    MWD once relied on the CRA for two thirds of its imported water supplies and about one third from the Sacramento Delta. Then, roughly these percentages reversed and MWD had to depend mostly on the Delta for imports.

    Lambasting Victor Davis Hanson’s conservative ideology is understandable, but Fleck’s criticism is a non sequitur (it dodges the question and doesn’t answer Hanson’s argument that the Klamath River diversion could have resulted in 15 MAF of water storage).


  6. Wayne –

    Your numbers are wrong.

    MWD never had 4.4maf of Colorado River water. California as a whole has always had 4.4maf plus surplus, 3.85 of which went to ag, 550k to Met, plus surplus mostly to Met, then others (source: 7 party agreement – Met never dropped anywhere close to your “ZERO to 500,000 AF”. From 1986-1999, MWD’s Colorado River Aqueduct deliveries varied from 994kaf in 1995 (the only year it was below a million) to 1.3 maf in 1986 (data from USBR Water Accounting Reports prepared under the AZ v. CA decree – And I’m not sure what you mean by all capping “FOURTH PRIORITY”, but Met’s 550kaf is quite reliable until we get down to serious Mad Max drought scenarios. Phoenix and Las Vegas go dry completely before Met or Imperial lose a drop. California’s priority under the 1968 Colorado River Basin Project Act ensures that, much to the current chagrin of the folks in Arizona. The Bureau’s modeling suggests you’ve got to get down to serious Mad Max drought scenarios before that happens, at which point we’re pretty much all screwed anyway.

    I didn’t dodge Hanson on Klamath, I addressed it directly – Klamath was an “other people’s money” project (the federal taxpayers) and when you want other people to pick up the tab, their values (as expressed through their elected representatives) get a seat at the political table where the deal is worked out. That’s my argument here. You can disagree with opponents’ choice to value a wild river or salmon over more water to Central Valley agriculture, but if you want “other people’s money” to pay for it, “other people’s values” by definition matter. OPM=OPV.

  7. Good point. But you never brought this up in your response to Hanson.

    But MWD had paper rights to more than it took. And undeniably MWD did shift from reliance on CRA water to Delta water no matter how much one wants to make an argument that it added 5.5 MAF of water. You have to consider the water it lost as well, whether it was paper water or actual water used.

    This is like saying that San Francisco added 3,000 units of affordable housing but failing to disclose that it demolished an equal number of older, affordable housing units.

    And once again this is a non sequitur to your original comment.

    Was Hanson wrong or not?

    You’re too smart for half truth answers. Make your case better.

  8. California lost the famous case of Arizona v. California (1963-64 and adjudicated many times afterward).

    [clipped because Wayne just cut and pasted a massive blob of text from yet another web site. If you have a point to make, make it yourself, incorporate and link for reference, please don’t clog up the comments here with massive cut-and-paste from elsewhere. Renders comment thread unreadable.]

  9. Klamath Diversion Project (Proposed) from
    [clipped because Wayne just pasted an entire Wikipedia entry. Please just incorporate by link, reference if you have a point to make]

  10. Forget Hansen’s reflexive rhetoric– he is the very bad classicist who earned his place at the Vice Presidential table by playing down Xenophon and touting 300 to drum up enthusiasm for the war in Iraq .

    As long as water is too cheap to conserve , no working farmer will pay to conserve it .

    Investment in new ways to reduce its loss could get around Chinatown Syndrome dams built by concrete barons and bond salesmen.

  11. Dr. Seitz
    It would be more helpful to drop the ad hominem attack and stick with the issue of Hanson’s Supply Side solution to California droughts. Otherwise you lower the level of discourse and reputation.

    In public utility economics water is a public good and as such its “price” must be set at Cost of Service.

    Do you think water should be priced at the cost of Water Recylcing and Desalination Plants, which is around $1,500 to $3,500 per acre foot, instead of the $100 to $1,000 for Central Valley Project water today?
    Well water already is priced at a high price. Fifty years from now the water from Recyling and Desalination plants will be about as cheap as Central Valley Project water due to monetary inflation and the pay off of the bonds to build the plants.

    1930’s – Central Valley Project, Colorado River Aqueduct – $20 to $300 per acre foot

    1960’s – State Water Project – $300 to $1,000 per acre foot

    2000’s – Water Recycling and Desalting Plants – $1,500 to $3,500 per acre foot

    Anything that has large upfront costs, such as a house or a dam, requires a long term contract to pay it off, called a mortgage or a municipal bond. If paid for a house based on cash it would take, what, 10 years or more to finish and there would be no house to occupy during that period. Same with a dam or aqueduct.

    We don’t shay to homeowners with below market interest rate mortgages on their properties that they are getting a subsidy and their mortgage interest should be raised to market levels. To do so would ruin the mortgage and housing markets. Then why should we raise the price of water so that farmers would have to conserve it? Shouldn’t we do the same with houses or cars or highways or sewer plants or student loans to pay Harvard professors?

    Raising the price of water artificially or to market price would result in water anarchy and civil war in California. Same thing would happen if we marked mortgages to market each year.

    If we shifted to a socialist society dams would be financed by confiscating money from people and building the dam. The Capitalist barons and bond salesmen would be eliminated and replaced by apparatchiks and a bribery system. But history has not proven that a very good way to build water infrastructure for farming whether it has been by Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, or Xenophon.

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