California is Drying Up

California is facing its worst drought in many years and is putting severe water restrictions in place.  In a somewhat arid state with both a huge population and incredibly productive agriculture, water has never not been an issue.  I love driving down I-5 and seeing the signs about “End the Congress-Created Dust Bowl”.  What those signs actually translate to is, of course, “How dare people get water for drinking when we need water to farm in semi-desert?”.

Water has shaped the history of the West.  For anyone living out west, I highly recommend reading a book by Marc Reisner, “Cadillac Desert“. Some bits are out of date, but the history of course stays the same.  The West simply doesn’t have enough water to support both the people and the agriculture, and might not even have enough for either.  The entire modern history the region has been shaped by the need for water, and by the damming and redirection necessary to support intensive settlement.  Driving around in the Southern Sierra Nevada, you will be shocked to see “Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’ offices, because the entire watershed is basically controlled as a colonial resource for LA.  Powerful interest groups have lobbied to run the water system as one of allocations, rather than one controlled by price.

The concerning aspect of this all is what happens if climate change makes these droughts more frequent.  The system isn’t flexible – even in good years, it contains allocations for more water than is even in the system.   Everything about the infrastructure of California, from the budgets to the water, is predicated on the assumption of growth – that California will keep growing and that the resources are there to support it.  It’s budgetary problems have finally started to be resolved, but water is a much stickier wicket.  Without the price system to send clear signals, water will continue to be dominated by politics and it’s unclear how California will ever move to a more sustainable equilibrium.

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