California’s water crisis

Through e-mail and online links, I’ve come across two articles in recent days that explain California’s water crisis and its underlying causes better than anything else I’ve read in the mainstream media.

The first is titled “California’s Vanishing Lakes and the Hunger of the Mines“.  It examines the impact of the Gold Rush on that State’s ecology and wildlife.  It’s fascinating reading, albeit repellent in the extent of its rapacity.  Here’s how it begins.

If you drive the long stretch of Interstate 5 known as the Westside Freeway, from the foot of the Grapevine through Buttonwillow and on to Los Banos, you’ll be cruising along the edge of the richest and most productive farm land in the world. If, halfway through that journey, you stop at a place called Kettleman City (a name more ambitious than accurate) and stand at the edge of the parking lot behind the In-and-Out Burger looking due east down a gentle slope, you’ll be staring at what was once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River.

Of course, from your perch at the In-and-Out, you won’t see any water. Tulare Lake is long gone, all 700 square miles of it; its water restrained behind dams in the foothills and channelled away into the irrigation canals that make the Central Valley so productive. In its place are hundreds of square miles of cotton and corn, and an elaborate system of drains, ditches, channels and sumps designed to keep the lake bed farmable.

The massive rearranging of California’s water resources, which began with the Gold Rush and continues to the present day, is a triumph of ingenuity and engineering, and the utter destruction of the original, pre-1849 biome.

There’s much more at the link.  It’s a long article, but well worth your time.

The second article is by Victor Davis Hanson.  It’s titled “California:  Running on Empty“.  Here’s an excerpt.

We suffer in California from a particular form of progressive immorality predicated on insular selfishness. The water supplies of Los Angeles and the Bay Area are still for a year longer in good shape, despite the four-year drought. Neither area is self-sufficient in water; their aquifers are marginal and only supply a fraction of their daily needs. Instead these megalopolises depend on intricate and expensive water transfer systems — from Northern California, from the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and from the Colorado River — that bring water and life to quite unnatural habitats and thereby allow a MGM or Facebook to thrive in an arid landscape that otherwise would not support such commerce and population. Without them, Atherton would look like Porterville.

Quiet engineers in the shadows make it all work; the loud activists in the media seek to make it unwind. These transfers have sterling legal authority and first claims on mountain and northern state water. If Latinos in Lemon Cove are going without household water, Pyramid Lake on I-5 or Crystal Springs Reservoir on 280 are still full to the brim.

Why then do those who have access to water delivered in a most unnatural way seek to curtail supplies to others? In a word, because they are either ignorant of where their own water comes from or they have not a shred of concern for others less blessed, or both. We will confirm this ethical schizophrenia should a fifth year of drought ensue. Then even the most sacrosanct rights of transferred water will not be sufficient to accommodate the San Francisco and Los Angeles basins. Mass panic and outrage will probably follow, and no one will care a bit about the delta smelt, or a few hundred salmon artificially planted into the San Joaquin River watershed, or a spotted toad that holds up construction of an urgently needed reservoir.

The greens who pontificate about the need to return the San Joaquin watershed to its 19th-century ecosystem will become pariahs. When the taps run dry in Hillsborough and Bel-Air, very powerful people will demand water for their desert environs, which will in fact begin to return to the deserts that they always were as the thin veneer of civilization is scraped away.

The pretensions and vanity of postmodern civilization will do no good. What value is the ubiquity of transgendered restrooms, when there is no water in the toilet or sink? Who needs a reservoir on the back nine, when there is no water for putting greens? Who cares whether plastic grocery bags are outlawed, when one cannot afford the tomatoes or peaches to put in a paper bag? What does it matter whether the homeless or ex-felons are ensured a job on the high-speed rail project, when there is no money or water to build it? Who cares about a new Apple watch, when he stinks to high heaven without a shower?

Let us face elemental reality. A 40-million person California is an iffy place. It is entirely dependent on a sophisticated, man-created infrastructure of dams, reservoirs, canals, pumps, freeways, rail lines, airports, and schools and universities. Given that the population continues to rise, and given that one in four Californians was not born in the United States and is often poor (California has the largest population in real and relative numbers below the poverty line; one sixth of the nation on welfare payments of some sort lives in California), there is no margin of safety. A drought is but a metaphor about the collapse of an entire way of living.

Again, more at the link, and highly recommended reading.

In essence, taking these two articles together, they point out how California was remade to suit its inhabitants, with complete and utter disregard for what Nature had wrought there over the previous millennia.  Now that remaking is coming undone, because Nature has blithely continued to do as she’s always done, and she’s a damn sight more powerful than all the works of man.  California has, quite simply, exceeded its carrying capacity.  For a time that could be compensated for by technology, ingenuity and massive structural investment.  The money to continue such investment is no longer there, and there’s no longer an abundance of natural resources within range that can be exploited.

The articles are a sobering reminder of the truth of the ancient Greek warnings about hubris, which was inevitably followed by nemesis. (or, as Longfellow put it, “Whom the Gods would destroy, they first make mad“).  Looking at California today, it’s hard to argue that those precepts don’t apply.



  1. This should be of deep worry to people in the other 47 contiguous states; California, from the population influx created by World War II on, has been slowly exceeding its carrying capacity. That has accelerated in recent decades, exacerbated by tolerance of the illegal immigrant influx. Roughly 25% of the population load could be relieved by sending Jose and Juanita home, but that wouldn't resolve the entire problem. It's not J & J who have 30,000 gallon swimming pools, 8 bathrooms and six cars.

    All this has been driven by the mental image of California as American Mecca, of beaches and sunshine, In-and-Out Burger palaces, Beach Boys songs, lithe blonde girls, and the ultimate promise, Left Coast Freedom To Do Whatever One Wants.

    As that Left Coast Nirvana deteriorates it has created a trickle of refugees moving their businesses elsewhere to escape the abominations of Democrat-ruled culture, on parallel with the Jews who saw it coming leaving Germany in the 1930s. When the wells run dry and the toilets stop flushing that trickle will become a flood, sending large scale Californication into Texas, North and South Carolina, Florida, et al. Smart people in the other 47 will begin girding their states against Californian Cultural Rot while they still have time.

  2. According to Cato, a huge part of the problem is market distortions based on how water is allocated. The water used to grow $2.50 worth of alfalfa is enough to supply a household for a year–but not only do farmers come first at artificially low rates, they cannot sell their water allocations to others. Instead they grow high water use crops in a desert, and sell much of the result overseas.

  3. About ten years ago I took a trip to California (my first). Besides being struck by how "Left-of-Everyone-Else-in-the-USA" they are (A heck of a culture shock), I learned that the State had been a virtual desert in most places until man made irrigation. The dark side of the old saying about it never raining in California. I know it's different in Norther CA but…well, being from the Northeast US, I couldn't believe how dry the state was overall. Home never looked so green and wet. I took it for granted.

    Here in northern NYS, there are weeks in the late spring/early summer where I have to mow my law two or more times a week or else it gets to long for the mower. And that's without any kind of sprinkler system. Just rain.

  4. Hard times for California. I don't think property values will be enhanced by this if the drought continues this year (or sooner).

    Food prices will be affected, no doubt about it. A lot of our domestic produce is from San Joaquin Valley – all of us will feel a pinch in the coming months. Best store a little extra now if you have the room and the money.

  5. I am on the Board of directors of a water supply corporation in the Dallas area, and am concerned about water: drinking water, cooking water and bathing water.

    Having once lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico for 35 years on 5 1/2 acres with our own water well, I am fully aware of water consumption and conservation. Our well started out at 165 feet(in 1946), then, as supply dwindled, we re-drilled to 300 feet(1960), and a few years later to 400 feet. The last measurement we took of the well showed that standing water in the casing had shrunk from 60 feet to 17 feet. According to the Rio Grande Water conservation district, the next level done was 600 feet. Drilling to that depth for use by one family was prohibitively expensive, so the time to sell out arrived, not for any of the usual reasons, but for the rising cost of our water.

    We were not exhausting the water supply, others were. Our well tapped into the Tesuque Aquifer – an offshoot of the much larger Ogalalla aquifer – which was being rapidly overdrawn by massive farming efforts in several States.

    Now I see that Californians are moving to Texas by the tens of thousands, but like California, Texas is largely desert, and the Dallas area water supply depends solely on man-made reservoirs and water piped in from remote sources.

    We recently had massive rainfalls that refilled many of our reservoirs, removing from everybody's mind worry over the massive drought we are actually facing. a reality that will come back in force as soon as the rains quit.

    The typical political response is to raise the cost of water, something we have done six times during my tenure as board member.

    Most Texans subscribe to the idea of natural landscaping… plant and maintain whatever is natural to the area, but with the influx of water-ignorant immigrants we will all soon discover that it does not take all that much watering of golf courses and lawns to delete a reservoir, and when there's no water coming out of your kitchen sink tap, that green lawn is finished.

    It seems we will have to learn the hard way – just like those idiot Californians – because our political leaders are just as short-sighted and stupid as they are in California.

    Where will Texans – along with their fine batch of new California immigrants – move to when the water here has vanishes?

  6. I'm not an engineer, but I have to wonder if the shortages of water in many places aren't a matter of a bad use CYCLE. Use it once, clean it, and dump it into a river course that, eventually, drops it into the sea. I've asked some people why not pump sewage-treatment water back down into depleted aquifers, and gotten no concrete answers. Maybe it isn't possible, but if so I'd like to know why.

    Id' also like to know more about desalinization. There were a lot of "Look at this wonderful new technology" articles about its use in places like the UAE, circa 1975 (as I recall), and since then not much. Is it too expensive to be practical?

  7. If I had to pick one thing as the most impressive feat of engineering for the 20th century, it would be water supplies. Even in the northeast, getting 'unlimited' clean water to every house as a matter of course is a staggering accomplishment. Here too it is due to a largely invisible network of reservoirs, pipelines, and property transfers. It is also, for those not on public water, due to improvements in well drilling technology.
    But because they do their job so unobtrusively we have largely fallen into the trap of assuming that it has always and will always be this way. We desperately need to rethink the technology of water 'manufacture' and water recycling. Unfortunately, I don't see that happening. If you look at the history of this field, you find a lot of bull headed, brilliant, maverick engineers, planners, politicians, and builders….none of them would likely be hired or elected today.

  8. It doesn't help a bit that our un-elected central planners have ordered all the cities of the Bay Area to add vast amounts of high-density housing.
    Here we are trying to triple the population of the area, and there's been no consideration given to details like water, electricity, and transportation (aside from light rail and high-speed trains from nowhere to nowhere, neither of which will get people from where they are to where they need to be).
    Water is scarce, the roads are in sorry shape (generally given a superficial short-term touch-up in election years), and the whole area is being transmogrified into a vast, sprawling, medium-rise big city.
    I'm stuck here for another year, and really hoping the wobbly facade doesn't fall over before I'm in a position to sell and bug out.

  9. Implosions are fun to watch / study as a historical inflection point.

    Darn ugly to live through from all I've seen and heard.

    I doubt the ripples from the mass exodus will not be felt everywhere else.

  10. Carrying capacity is relative to technologies used to increase that capacity. In California, the problem is not that the population has expanded so much as that the state has stopped maintaining and expanding water facilities.

    Dumping fully half the water in the system in order to provide for "environmental causes" (such as creating a welcoming habitat for non-native coho salmon in the Sacramento River for some reason) doesn't help either. That's not a problem of carrying capacity, it's a human decision made from out-of-whack priorities and blind indifference to math.

  11. I commend to your attention the book "Living With Water Scarcity" by David Zetland (available as a free pdf file at, or in dead tree format from many booksellers).
    It's a really well-written book that examines water issues from an economic analysis point of view. It avoids prescribing particular policy goals, choosing instead to examine mechanisms that can achieve goals in lower-cost more-fair ways. It also serves as a really good plain-language introduction to Economics.

    Well worth the couple of hours it would take to read.

  12. Jaed: The good news is, we're not actually dumping half the water in the system; see here for some useful detail. In short, quite a bit of the water in the statistics is not practically exploitable anyway. Wait, that's actually bad news, isn't it?
    The other bad news is, a big chunk of the water currently being used, especially for agriculture, represents deficit spending, as the aquifers gradually drain.
    So the situation is a lot worse than the stories would have us believe; we've been overpumping the aquifers for a long time, and much (most?) of the "environmental uses" water wouldn't be available for human purposes even if the various regulatory agencies and pressure groups had never been, so we can't really solve the problem overnight by raiding the salmon streams.

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