California is in the midst of a serious four-year drought, which has been an attention-grabber here and around the country. People have seized on the drought as a symptom of global climate change, and as a cypher for water shortages as a way of life and even for the fragility of civilization as we know it on the West Coast. Don’t believe it.
California has plenty of water. Its rainfall averages about half that of the Northeast, but that’s still some 185 million acre-feet (60 million gallons) a year on average—an unimaginable amount. Of course, it doesn’t all fall where or when it’s wanted, but there’s the world’s largest water storage and transfer system in place to help overcome that, managing over 40 million acre-feet a year. To put that in perspective, it’s enough to fill one Olympic-sized pool for every two people in the state.
So what’s the rub? The problem is that California’s water is badly misallocated and, as a result, demand regularly outruns supply. We can’t have water wherever and whenever we wish, so choices have to be made. For most things in our commercialized world, money does the choosing and markets do the allocating, but that’s rarely the case with water resources, and certainly not here. Water supply has been made to serve certain purposes by means of politics, and to run uphill to the heights of power in the state.
Which brings me to my favorite film of all time, Chinatown: brilliantly scripted by Robert Towne, directed by Roman Polanski, and performed by Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston. Chinatown is one of those great works of fiction that are, in a way, truer than mere facts, because they make sense of disparate and complicated realities in a way that reaches everyone.
The film speaks in several voices and at many levels, to be sure: it takes on race, gender, and violence, as well as water and land schemes. It condenses several different places and times into a single scenario, but gets all the essentials right for the story of Los Angeles’s water grab, organized by the land barons of the early 20th century. The rub is that the story is true not just of L.A., but of everywhere in California—and it’s still basically true today. It’s still Chinatown.
Water, Water Everywhere
People like to blame nature for their problems, and with global warming cooking up bigger and fiercer storms, heat waves, and droughts, it’s easy to fall into this trap. But when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the devastation had less to do with natural forces than with where the city was built, who was forced to live in the lowest sections, human-induced erosion of the delta, and the absurdity of driving an Industrial Canal through the middle of the city. The same is true of California’s water woes.
Of course, nature poses certain problems that people try to solve. The Golden State is a land with a Mediterranean climate, one of five in the world, which is in many ways a great blessing: lots of sunshine, beautiful summer fogs, and exceptional ecological diversity. It means we live on a borderland between the wet Pacific Northwest and the dry Southwest; hence, Northern California is wetter, and Southern California is drier. It means we get wet winters as the storm tracks move south, and dry summers when the high pressure builds up. But it also means that some years the rainstorms don’t come and some years they come in droves. What it fundamentally means is this: we live in a land of variability.
So there is no “normal,” meaning average, year in California—only normally abnormal years. Sometimes these add up to a drought. This has been true for centuries, as tree ring records make clear. So, while global warming may make things worse (or better), no one should be surprised by this drought. It is not, by any means, the worst recorded by the bristlecone pines, and they’ve been holding silent vigil over the Far West for a long time.
To cope with this climate, California has reengineered its waterscape to serve modern demands for water when and where people and businesses want it. We’ve created the world’s largest storage and transfer system, consisting of some 1,600 major dams and thousands of miles of canals and aqueducts. The purpose of this immense plumbing system is to hold water in reservoirs as it runs down the rivers of the Sacramento-San Joaquin system and move it west from the Sierra Nevada, south to the San Joaquin Valley, and then over the Tehachapis to Southern California. We have also dammed the Colorado River, which drains the Rockies, and diverted water west to the Imperial Valley and to greater Los Angeles and San Diego.
Millions of acre-feet (trillions of gallons) of water are moved around the state in this way every year. It is a wonderful achievement in many regards, and it has allowed California farms and cities to flourish, as our state economy and population have become the largest in the U.S. and the envy of the world.
What Can Brown Do For You?
All this magnificent plumbing has not saved the Golden State from the present drought, nor could it. There’s simply not enough water after four very dry years to do everything we normally do. Nature’s cupboard is bare for the time being. The result has been an inability to deliver any water south from the Sacramento River, a massive overdraft of groundwater, dramatic ground subsidence from pumping, and thousands of people and farmers seeing their wells run dry. That, in turn, has meant severe cutbacks in agriculture and major restrictions in urban water use, down by one-quarter to one-third of average use of supplies.
Is this a disaster? Not in the same sense as Katrina was. Agricultural losses are at least 2 billion dollars, with fields unplanted, orchards dying, and farm workers unemployed. In urban areas, gardens and greenways have suffered, and many trees have died. But no person has died. And, as in all natural disasters, people have rallied to the cause of saving water and shown, once again, that everyday conservation can get the cities through the crisis. They have demonstrated that California can cope with drought, as it did in the dry period of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. Agri-business, however, will have none of that. Drought means money lost.
As a result of agri-business’ drumbeat over the crisis, the state of California is gearing up to build a new round of water infrastructure: building the Temperance Flat Dam on the San Joaquin River, diversion dams on the Sacramento River, the Sites Reservoir in the dry creeks on the west side of the Sacramento Valley, and raising the Shasta Dam by 20 feet. Most stunning is the plan to drive two 30-mile-long tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to carry water from the north to the south without the difficulty of navigating the winding waterways of the Delta and occasional salt water intrusion in this pivotal link in the water transfer system.
This new program of supply expansion is being spearheaded by the liberal, Democratic governor, Jerry Brown. Brown’s father led the drive for the State Water Project some fifty years ago, and Jerry tried to build an earlier version of a delta bypass, the Peripheral Canal, during his first time around as governor in the 1970s. That project was derailed by one of the greatest electoral revolts in California history, and went down to defeat by popular referendum in 1982. Whether Brown is still trying to emulate his father or just get revenge for his past defeat is unclear.
But, ultimately, the idea of supply expansion is not Brown’s: it comes from agri-business, which irrigates at least 3 million acres of the San Joaquin Valley with water pumped out of the Delta. To get more water from the north state has been their idée fixe for generations. Their mantra is: keep building and the water will come. Unfortunately for them, and for us, it won’t. It is magical thinking of the worst sort—that we can overcome any limit nature sets and engineer ourselves out of a drought. Californians have to learn to live within their watery means, and that includes agri-business. So why is that lesson so hard to learn?
Whose Gain, Whose Pain?
California’s water network has come at a huge cost. Billions of dollars have been invested in these waterworks. The new dams will be absurdly expensive compared to their payoff in water deliveries, which are pathetically small. Billions will be invested for less than a half-million acre-feet of added delivery, on average, and much less in droughts. The Delta Drains will cost even more—estimates run from $15 billion to $25 billion—and will generate no new water at all.
Meanwhile, the environmental costs of plugging rivers, draining wetlands, and diverting outflow to the sea have been gigantic, from rivers devoid of salmon to beaches starved of sand. These only got worse after the State Water Project was added to the Central Valley Project in the 1960s. This has led to periodic revolts by environmentalists to stop further dam-building and to try to restore some of the ravaged rivers. In recent lawsuits, they forced the dam operators to release more water to help keep the salmon running, the Delta fresher, and the San Joaquin River flowing (it dries out every year for over 100 miles because of water diversions).
Agri-business has predictably raised a howl of protest over a “waste” of good water for such frivolous purposes. The growers argue that they are “feeding the world” (with almonds and melons?), that they are worried about farm worker unemployment (then why is it so high in good times?), and that the blame falls on environmental regulations (are the rain gods neoliberals?). If the growers get their way, the new tunnels will make it possible to take virtually all the water out of the Sacramento River and leave the Delta and San Francisco Bay high and dry—or, rather, lower, wetter, saltier, and salmon-free.
Given the costs, one might well ask: What are the benefits and to whom do they go? The simple answer is that agri-business is the overwhelming beneficiary of the massive water deliveries. Agriculture accounts for 75–80 percent of water use in California. Cities take 20–25 percent. Of the latter, a third goes to industrial and commercial users, a third to garden watering, and only a third to domestic uses. Human bodies require less than one-tenth of all the water consumed. It’s not long showers that are bringing down the Golden State.
Moreover, water is an unbelievable bargain. City dwellers pay less than 1 cent per gallon, even as urban water agencies do not have the money to repair pipes that leak away 10 percent of their flow. And rate structures often perversely offer discounts to the biggest users, instead of graded rate structures. No wonder city folk can so easily cut back their use in a drought. They hardly take notice of their water bills in the overall scheme of things.
But cities pay a fortune for water by comparison with agri-business: thousands of dollars per acre-foot versus a mere handful. Agricultural water is heavily subsidized in three ways. First, dams and canals built by the state or federal government are not paid for by growers; they are mostly paid for by hydropower sold to cities and partly written off to the general taxpayer. Second, local water districts, the key intermediaries in agricultural water systems, tax urban land within their domain to help pay their costs (on the theory that everyone benefits). Third, groundwater in California only costs what it takes to drill and pump to the surface; underground it’s a free-for-all, where other people’s dry wells and roads and canals, cracked from subsidence and loss of future recharge, are cost-free.
In short, in California water is too cheap and therefore too much in demand. Water is undervalued and overused. That is the basic economic dilemma of the state’s water policy.
When I say “policy,” I mean that water is allocated politically more than by markets. Conservative commentators have seized on this to declare that “water markets” are the solution to all our problems. But water markets are rare in this world, and for good reason: water is essential to life and to all economic activity—above all, farming. More than that, water supply requires massive investments in infrastructure that don’t price out easily and don’t allow for competition. Water supply is a classic “public good,” in economic terms. But it is far from a public good in California; it is mobilized for private gain, above all, and to quench the public thirst as a secondary goal.
Rivers of Empire
One of America’s great environmental historians, Donald Worster, wrote a fine book some years ago entitled Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). In it, he argued that California water was a classic case of what has been called a “hydraulic civilization” and that, historically, polities require a despotic state apparatus to build and manage irrigation works, as in ancient Babylon, Egypt, and China. He expressly criticized the great California writer Carey McWilliams for referring to big agriculture as “factories in the field” and ignoring the key role of irrigation. Worster was right about irrigation, but wrong about agri-business and its relationship to government.
This is America, where “public-private partnership” is a polite way to say that business and the state forever work hand-in-hand—or, rather, hand-in-glove. And the hand pulling the strings of water politics in California has always been that of the agrarian capitalists. Take, for example, the case that Worster featured in Rivers of Empire: the origins of the modestly named Imperial Valley and the Colorado River Storage Project. On the one side, the Imperial Valley growers banded together to try to harness the mighty Colorado around 1900 and failed miserably as privateers, causing the unnatural disaster of the flood of 1905–06 that leapt their diversion dam and flowed 100 miles west to create the Salton Sea in the former Salton Sink. They had to be bailed out by the Southern Pacific Railroad. But then they regrouped as the immense Imperial Irrigation District (IID), under a new state law of 1911 that conveniently gave them the power to tax and to sell bonds like a government agency, bringing in millions of investor dollars from Los Angeles and beyond. Meanwhile, they enlisted Joe Lippincott, the very same engineer who helped Los Angeles grab the Owens Valley, to survey dam sites on the Colorado.
The problem was that the Colorado River didn’t really belong to them—yet. It inconveniently traveled through several other states, not to mention Mexico. So the imperial growers enlisted the federal government to sort out water rights and tame the river, which Congress agreed to do through the Colorado River Compact of 1922 and Boulder Canyon Project Act of 1928. Happily for the IID, the lion’s share of the water went to them, and still does despite lawsuits and diversions to all the upstream states and greater Los Angeles (through another state-created agency, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California).
While the Imperial Valley was struggling with the Colorado River, the federal Bureau of Reclamation was sputtering along building irrigation projects in hopelessly marginal lands in Nevada, Idaho, and Arizona—where growing seasons were too short to repay the cost of the projects—as Congress had required in 1902. The Bureau was going nowhere fast. Then the gods of capitalism intervened. The Colorado River project provided the opening the Bureau desperately needed: harnessing its fortunes to the powerhouse of the West, California agri-business. IID was the big dog, the Bureau the tail set to wagging. Worster has the story exactly backwards.
In California, such brazen water grabs have been the norm. We all know about Los Angeles and the Owens Valley, the original inspiration for Chinatown. But San Francisco infamously grabbed part of Yosemite National Park, much to the fury of John Muir and the Sierra Club. Oakland and Berkeley took the Mokelumne River. Salinas Valley growers dried up the Salinas River. Nevada seized the Truckee River flowing out of Lake Tahoe and nearly destroyed massive Pyramid Lake. Then, in the greatest water grab of all, San Joaquin Valley agri-business took hold of the Sacramento-San Joaquin river system, damming every single river and moving millions of acre-feet south to water their hot, dry lands.
In short, agri-business was able to capture local government, state government, and the federal government—a full house—to serve their thirst for water and profits. And as William Faulkner said, “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.” Nothing has changed. Growers still have a firm grip on the reins of power, and they are holding on tight. Governor Brown, of course, but also Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, are firmly in their camp—Feinstein is famously cozy with Kern County grower Stewart Resnick, the pomegranate king and Fiji Water exporter (in a drought!)—not to mention a slew of House members, such as almost-speaker Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from Bakersfield, Kern County.
So agri-business is still in the driver’s seat in California water politics. Nevertheless, their grip has been weakened by popular protest and natural realities. The court decision to require extra water releases to support fish populations was the latest setback. But defeat of the Peripheral Canal in 1982 was the real body blow that stopped water development in its tracks. That followed an equally significant loss in the North Coast, where plans to build the Dos Rios Dam on the Eel River were thwarted and, worse, the Eel, Trinity, and Klamath (and the McCloud, an upstream source of the Sacramento) were designated as “Wild and Scenic Rivers,” first by the state and then by the feds, to forbid further development.
This meant that the last watery frontier of California was denied to the thirsty profiteers. Don’t think for a minute, however, that their eyes aren’t still on the North Coast, and those millions of acre-feet “wasting to the sea” year after year. What else could possibly justify the building of the Delta Drains? They cannot seize the entire Sacramento River flow without stirring up the fury of every city in the greater Bay Area. There has to be more water imported to the Sacramento, as was the intention of the Dos Rios project. Why else would the Westlands Water District in the San Joaquin Valley join a lawsuit to stop native tribes and environmentalists from tearing down a group of useless old power dams on the Klamath River?
But I have a better solution. The biggest single beneficiary of supply enhancement south of the Delta will be the Westlands Water District, the second biggest irrigation entity in the state after the IID. Westlands is another creature lending state powers to the growers, and is even less democratic: in “water districts,” people don’t vote, acres do. (One Kings County water district used to be controlled by a single owner, the Salyer family). Westlands has the most “junior” water rights (contracts) to water pumped out of the Delta, so they’ve been without significant water deliveries from the Central Valley Project & State Water Project combine since early in this drought. They’ve already retired 200,000 of the 600,000 irrigated acres in the district and they are heavily invested in almonds, a tree crop that must be watered every year. They are desperate and loud. Westlands is the tail that wags the California water dog.
The Delta Drains will cost at least $15 billion. Cropland in Westlands is currently selling for about $15,000 per acre. So why not buy out the whole damned lot of it for a bit under $10 billion? It’s a bargain. It saves the Delta. And it saves the one million acre-feet of water foolishly promised annually to Westlands—a simple solution. Indeed, it is the same trick Senator Feinstein used to save the salt ponds of San Francisco Bay for a National Wildlife Refuge—she got the government to buy the property from Cargill Corporation for hundreds of millions of dollars.
But, as his old police sidekick says at the end of the film: “Forget it, Jake, this is Chinatown.” Yes, it is, unless we Californians stand up to the growers and their political hench(wo)men and say, enough is enough. All indications are that the people, at least north of the Techacapis, are solidly against the Delta Drains and the rest. But a state bond issue already passed last year, sold to gullible voters as mostly water conservation works. So it’s still an uphill fight. Groups like the Sierra Club, Stop the Tunnels, and Restore the Delta have mobilized, and the governor and his crew will have a hard time getting through the lawsuits, protests, and political uproar to get the concrete poured.
RICHARD WALKER is Professor Emeritus of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught from 1975 to 2012 and served as Chair of Geography, Global Metropolitan Studies, and California Studies. He has written on a diverse range of topics in economic, urban, and environmental geography and is co-author of The Capitalist Imperative (1989) and The New Social Economy (1992). He has written extensively on California, including The Conquest of Bread (2004), The Country in the City (2007), and The Atlas of California (2013).His awards include Fulbright and Guggenheim Fellowships, a Distinguished Scholarship Award from the Association of American Geographers, the Carey McWilliams Award from the California Studies Association, and the Hal Rothman prize from the Western History Association.