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California Has Abundant Water, Not Political Courage

Jul 22, 2008
Is California running out of water? Or are we just running out of political will?

It is easy, as I did over the weekend, to contemplate life alongside a rushing creek in the Eastern Sierra and assume that there is enough water in that creek and others like it throughout the Sierra to provide for California as it hurdles toward 50 million people. So is it possible, as my old planning professor Cary Lowe warned in the Sunday L.A. Times, that the current drought may lead to "the end of growth" and "the end of the state as we know it"?

The Times seems to carry the California-is-running-out-of-water story every three months or so. But it's almost always presented as a natural resources issue: there isn't enough water anymore! It's rarely presented the way it should be as a political question.

California doesn't have an infinite amount of water, but we do have a lot of water sloshing around the system. There's probably enough to handle another generation of growth. The question is who gets to use the water, and for what. But few of the players have much political motivation to frame the issue this way.

To be fair, Lowe, a longtime developers' lawyer in the Inland Empire and San Diego, did frame the current drought as a consequence of global warming, something I haven't seen too many times before. And the article raised the question squarely about how California especially Southern California will manage future growth in population and economic activity without importing any more water from the outside.

But what does this mean? Does it mean that we can't accommodate any additional people or businesses in Southern California? Or does it mean we all have to take Navy showers forever?

For a lot of people especially slow-growth activists the answer is clearly that population should not increase anymore. The slow-growthers often use environmental arguments to back up their position for example, the idea that each natural system has only so much "carrying capacity" and that carrying capacity cannot be exceeded. They're not interested in portraying the water issue as a question of priorities and allocation, because what they're really fighting is not water but population growth.

This kind of argument common in California since the 1970s makes what I call the "Dowell Myers mistake" about the future. Myers, a demographer and planning professor at the University of Southern California, often says that in thinking about the future, people assume that it will be just like the present only bigger. If people live on quarter-acre lots with big lawns now, then the future will consist of more quarter-acre lots with big lawns. Rarely, Myers says, do people ever imagine that the world will not be bigger than the present but, rather, different. In the future, maybe everybody won't live on a quarter-acre lot.

Lowe's article in the Sunday Times implicitly makes Myers' point by noting that imported water supplies in Southern California, currently 2.1 million acre-feet per year, have not increased in almost 20 years. Although Lowe didn't say this in his piece, during that time Southern California's population has grown by several million people. Somehow or other, the rubber band is bending. The same amount of water is being stretched to serve more people.

How? Is it because we are all taking Navy showers which, I think, slow-growthers often see as the grim and unpleasant alternative to stopping population growth? To some extent, yes. When people pay more for water and water prices have been going up they use less of it. More importantly, however, California has survived for the last 20 years on a finite amount of water by reallocating the water already in the system. As Lowe implies in his article, this is a much more effective and far-reaching way to achieve "conservation" than Navy showers.

In my book The Reluctant Metropolis, I told the story of how cities and environmentalists began during the 1990s to gang up with each other in order to take water away from the state's farmers, who use the vast majority of it. Although I told the story largely as a tale of political power, there was an economic aspect to it as well.

Farmers can use less water freeing up most of what we need in California for the foreseeable future but in order to do so, they must make major capital investments or change their cropping patterns. Farmers are accustomed to being a politically powerful lobby, and they don't want the government squeezing them about what they can grow. So, no less than the slow-growthers, they don't have much motivation to present the water question as an issue of priorities either.

Like the rest of the United States, California lives with a system of capital infrastructure water, transportation, electricity that assumes energy and natural resources are cheap and we can waste as much as we want. Many farmers can move toward more efficient irrigation practices, but they are currently stuck with decades-old irrigation systems that aren't very water-efficient. The money for these needed capital investments comes from the cities, which can afford to pay far more for the water than the farmers.

Farmers don't like the idea that cities can outbid them for water and essentially bribe them to conserve, but it's better than the alternative having the Legislature get into the business of zoning cropping patterns. If you really wanted to save water, you could prohibit or restrict the growing of such water-intensive crops as rice, cotton, and alfalfa (which is not only thirsty but also low-value). But that's the farmers' equivalent of mandatory Navy showers.

With water as with so many other environmental issues in this age of global warming our best hope lies not with stopping other people from crossing the border, or from taking Navy showers, but with making wise capital investments that will allow us to use that water more efficiently.

Farmers may not want to change their decades-old practices to use less water. And slow-growthers may not want to give up the carrying capacity argument and admit that we can accommodate more people without more water. These are issues of political will. They force us to ask not whether we can use our resources more efficiently, but whether we want to.

Bill Fulton