California drought: Jerry Brown doesn’t have a knob to turn

Yesterday’s executive order from California Gov. Jerry Brown (pdf here) illustrates a crucial issue about water governance, the issue of the scale at which we manage our water.

The headline news from Brown’s announcement – “First Ever Statewide Mandatory Water Reductions.” But what does “mandatory” mean here? Here’s the explanation from Craig Miller, who’s covering California drought for KQED in San Francisco:

In other words, municipal water in California is managed at a different scale – of 400 (or maybe 3,000? see below) municipal water agencies. Here’s how Matt Weiser and David Siders, in the Sacramento Bee, described what happens next:

Brown’s executive order directs California’s more than 3,000 urban water providers to collectively cut their water use by 25 percent compared with 2013. The State Water Resources Control Board is expected to impose the new restrictions by mid-May, setting a different target for each agency depending on how much water its customers use per capita and conservation progress since last year.

What “mandatory” actually means here, as it cascades down from the Governor to the SWRCB to the individual utilities to their customers is not clear. Each of those entities is already either succeeding or failing, managing well or poorly, struggling or not, and the most Gov. Brown can do here is give them a little nudge.

This is not a criticism of Gov. Brown. As Faith Kearns put it, expecting a single solution here is wrong:

Rather, the solutions are likely to flow up from the bottom, as each group of water users deals at its local level with its local problems. But saying Gov. Brown doesn’t have a knob to turn may underestimate his extraordinary political skill. The single nob he does have to turn is the power to make dramatic statements that draw a lot of attention to the problem. That in turn may enable that bottom up push for solutions. And that is the knob he turned on Wednesday.

(Thanks to my University of New Mexico colleague Bruce Thomson, who in the New Mexico context introduced the concepts of “knobs to turn” to our water policy dialogue here.)


  1. John,

    A couple of numbers I’ve heard bandied about:
    80% of CA water is expended on agriculture.
    10% of CA water is expended on growing almonds.
    Are these numbers correct? Do you have better estimates?

  2. Rod –

    Depends on who you ask, but yeah, 80 percent ag/20 muncipal for developed water is about right.

    Ag people would phrase it differently: 40 ag/10 muni/50 environmental flows.

    I don’t know the almond number, but it’s big.

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