The tragedy of the anticommons – we’re good at saying “no”

Cleaning out some old files this morning, I ran across this great quote from Pat Mulroy some years back from a talk about the problems of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Via’s Maven’s Notebook:

We are very, very good at saying no. We are very, very good at blocking. Anybody can stop anything. What we can’t do or can’t seem to do is find a structure within which to say yes. You will never have enough science, you will never have enough data, but at some point, something has to change.

This applies beyond the California Bay-Delta.


  1. when you have a severely damaged system it should be easy to say no to even more damage.

    currently it looks like the CA water plan for this coming season is to damage the salmon even more.

    it should be easy to say no unless the plan is clearly for improving things and treating the rivers and the wildlife with some respect.

  2. That works both ways. There have also been times when “No” wasn’t said often enough or at least at the right times on the Colorado:

    – when Norviel demanded Lower Basin tributaries be removed from the compact at the last minute in 1922. We got the unfathomable III(b) and a hundred years of conflict.
    – when the State Department and others increased the Mexico obligation from a reasonable 800,000 or even 1.1 million af to 1.5 million, in part to get more water for Texas in the Rio Grande from Mexico.
    – in 1997 when the Bureau and Arizona decided the solution to CAP’s inability to use its full entitlement was to drain it out of Lake Mead and put it in holes in the ground. Probably not a valid use under III(e) or IV(b)
    – when Arizona threatened litigation in 2005 unless releases from Powell were increased to 9 million af much of the time to cover the Lower Basin’s structural deficit
    – to establishing water markets in the Upper Basin with Demand Management in the 2018 DCP which seems to a laymen to be contrary to “exclusive beneficial consumptive use” under Article III(a). Buying out water rights in the Upper Basin to put the water in Lake Powell preludes exclusive consumptive use in the Upper Basin. It will either evaporate or go to the Lower Basin to use. Entsminger pointed this out on your CRWUA panel in 2018 when he said “Gravity Works!!”

    The problem with saying “Yes” all the time is eventually you turn into a patsy.

  3. My favorite Mulroy quote (paraphrased) was from a water conference in Las Vegas in the early 1990s. Sitting on the stage next to Amory Lovins she responded to his comments on water use efficiency with: “Las Vegas will never adopt conservation programs. Conservation would damage the economy and mythology of Las Vegas.” At least she was able to learn and accept reality in later years. There was a reason she was known as the Ice Queen during that period.

  4. As someone from Las Vegas, my context for Mulroy’s career was that she was (and is) consistently trying to get more water to feed sprawl in Las Vegas. So when she’s complaining about people always saying no, I feel like the people she’s really talking about are environmentalists/tribes/ranchers in Northern Nevada, who don’t want all their water to get sucked up to build more tract houses. That’s a fight that SNWA keeps losing on scientific/environmental grounds (not to mention the broader politics of fairness).

    A tragedy of the anticommons is when a bunch of stakeholders are able to veto a more socially beneficial use. But is it really socially beneficial for Las Vegas to sprawl down to the California border, so that housing developers can make a bunch more money? I would argue “hard no,” and that’s without even taking into account the ecological damage and cultural/economic damage to tribes/ranchers/other less powerful groups that Mulroy is talking about here.

  5. And this mindset is part of the problem:

    Excerpt: “Last year, the Central Valley was a wakeup call, but we’re not awake yet. It’s the same soap opera over and over and over again, the record’s broken. Is California really going to exit from the global food chain? Does California really believe that exiting the global food chain is not going to have consequences in other parts of the world? It is. You can’t add 2 billion people to this planet and not think about global food supply. We don’t eat local. We eat globally. What’s our favorite dish? Ahi tuna. Well it certainly isn’t in Mead.”

    Can a small % of the world’s population really expect to continue to consume a large part of the world’s resources (including Ahi tuna)? Can CA really be such a large part of the “global food chain”? I remember a passage in Cadillac Desert where it was noted that while the water infrastructure was being laid in CA to transform a desert or semi-desert to an agricultural region, another region with plenty of rainfall year-round was being flooded for the TVA in the south. I know that the electricity provided was useful there, but the irony is apparent. It’s time to use those parts of the world that are best suited to ag. for that purpose and stop trying to move large amounts of water to distant places to turn them into something they aren’t.

    That we expect to eat Ahi tuna off into the future, and that keeping CA in the “global food chain” will work towards allowing this is just hubris.

  6. … and that the “global food chain” that CA is part of includes the 80% of the almonds that are exported in order to satisfy the Almond Council advertising campaigns in China, India and elsewhere that a handful of almonds or a glass of almond milk will extend one’s life or make them smarter or some such B.S.

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