On the heels of last week's post about California and the strain on our water resources, here is a great if lenghty piece delightfully titled "The Town Los Angeles Drank." It goes into a great deal of detail on just how complex, costly, and increasingly audacious the plans and infrastructure necessary to meet the giant state's water needs are getting.

Aside from the obvious relevance to the current drought and long term questions about the availability of water, the article touches on just how timid governments are these days to propose anything ambitious…anything at all, really. The 20th Century was defined by massive, expensive public works, and where would California be without them (think Hoover Dam)? The 21st is unfolding as an era in which everything the government does is Bad, anything it tries to do with fail, and the only acceptable Big Programs are the ones that take public funds and hand them over to private industry (Bush's prescription drug program or the ACA come to mind).

And businesses, of course, know how to do things The Right Way. The only problem is that the free market is incapable of incentivizing them to solve unprofitable problems, meaning that the role of government is to slop enough money into the trough to spur them into action.

If that seems backward and inefficient to you, or if basic questions of accountability are coming to mind, you're a communist.

Fortunately California is a little less beholden to articles of right wing ideological faith than, say, Kansas but they've had their moments over the years. This is a state that made it illegal for its legislature to raise taxes, invented the Three Strikes law, and shat Ronald Reagan and Bob Dornan upon the rest of the nation. When the staggering cost of keeping the water flowing to the state's megacities as well as its agricultural backbone becomes clear, will the state pony up or will the process of governing be derailed by another idiotic ballot proposition?

Based on the state's recent history, it could go either way.


  • Yorba Linda, CA is the birthplace of Richard Milhous Nixon. Lest we forget.

    California produces a share of hard-right folks. Look up Tim Donnelly, for example.

  • A Different Nate says:

    I wish I were even as optimistic as you, Ed, giving the whole "try to not have the state return to an uninhabitable desert" option a fifty percent chance. Considering the Republicans appear committed to dying on the hill of Obamacare despite it being, as you say, basically a huge transfer of public dollars to healthcare corporations, and after shit like Prop 8 from the supposed small government crowd, I can't imagine there being anything less than a catastrophic battle over even the tamest of common sense measures to maybe not have people dying in the streets of CA.

  • The agricultural "backbone" isn't quite what it used to be – ag makes up about 2-3% of the state's GDP (while using 80% of the state's water). Much of that water goes to growing incredibly thirsty crops like alfalfa and almonds for export. Almonds are such a water-intensive crop – a single almond takes a gallon of fresh water to grow – that the only way they can be grown profitably is if the growers have access to almost unlimited amounts of water at rates subsidized well below market prices.

    10% of the state's fresh water goes to household uses (cooking, drinking, showers, toilets, car washes, landscaping, dishwashing, etc.) for 38 million people.

    Another 10% of the state's fresh water goes solely to grow almonds for export.

    I'm not sure yelling at people to take fewer showers is really the approach needed to solve the state's water problems.

  • **If that seems backward and inefficient to you, or if basic questions of accountability are coming to mind, you're a communist.**

    Indeed I am. What really bothers me is that people think the government CAN control the economy via the Fed and can control geopolitics through its military and that there are no alternatives to those. Talk about backward and inefficient.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    I sometimes feel like today's Americans are like the Egyptians who came along long after the pyramids were built, and the technological know-how of how to build them, had been lost.

    They can see that they were built.
    But how?
    And by whom?

    Today, we Americans look at the waterways, dams, railways, roadways, bridges – and other technological and engineering marvels in what is our rotting infrastructure – and wonder why we don't do the same things – or, at least fix the shit that's rotting all around us?


    Conservatism, with it's hatred of taxes, government unions, education, etc., is the cancer that is absolutely killing us.

    It's just a matter of time before that cancer eats this country.

    But don't worry, whatever taxes are collected, will go to our military and policing, to protect "us!"
    Even as there's less and less in this country worth protecting…

    But, of course, we all know the purpose of the military and police forces isn't to protect "us" – it's to protect the wealthy and powerful FROM the rest of us.
    You know, like if we get it into our silly heads to say, "I'M MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!!!

    And that, children, is why our military sends its hand-me-downs to local police forces:
    Just in case we decide "We the people," have had enough of this bullshit, and start to revolt.
    But, we Americans are too complacent to revolt.
    Don't you find that revolting?

    All we can do, since we won't grab change, is help GOTV for coming elections.
    Small consolation, that…

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Regarding my comment above, I prefer the Gandhi and MLK Jr. method of change, via non-violent protest.
    But our MSM has learned to avoid showing protests – either that, or they minimize the protests by making the protesters look ridiculous.

    Look at what they did with the Occupy Wall Street protests:
    They focused on a few individuals, and then wrapped their entire "They're just lazy DFH's without jobs! " narrative around them.

    What if you held a protest and no one else besides the protesters saw it?

    Ask countless of us anti-war/torture/rendition protesters from the 00's. No matter how many people showed up, our media refused to do an overhead shot to show the size of the crowds.
    Instead, they…
    'They focused on a few individuals, and then wrapped their entire "They're just lazy DFH's without jobs! " narrative around them.'

    End of long rant – and smaller rant.

  • Babe of the Boom says:

    To be fair, Ronald Reagan, that 'great' grade B movie star, may have gotten his start in California Politics, but you can't blame California for the shitty cognitive abilities the rest of the nation displayed in Presidential elections—twice!

  • Let's not give developers a free pass either. I live in the CA desert. We're being told we need to restrict our water use. I use so little now that it's hardly possible for me to cut 20 or 25 percent. However, developers are building new hotels like crazy. Right now, in Palm Springs, there are 9 or10 hotels of varying sizes currently under construction. So, this means more people drinking water, more people showering, more swimming pools and spas. Meanwhile, at the eastern end of the Coachella Valley, developers have announced plans to build several thousand new homes. Someone needs to tell these people to stop it.

    Another factor is that water, for all our problems, is cheap. I used to live in Boston. Water rates there are six times higher than what we pay here. Bump up the water rates here and a lot of people are going to be making hard decisions about how much water they use — without any regulations.

    I'm not an anti-regulatory type of person, but when they try to solve the problems on the backs of people who use only 10 percent of the water in the state, something is wrong. Even if every household in the state decreased its water use by 25 percent, it would produce so minuscule a result that it would have almost no effect.

  • The Jack of Hearts says:

    "…businesses, of course, know how to do things The Right Way. The only problem is that the free market is incapable of incentivizing them to solve unprofitable problems…" An excellent counterpoint to bring up whenever someone starts praising the free market ad nauseam.

    When I was researching art schools to attend, I considered a couple in California. However, even this excellent recruiting movie could not sway me to disregard their inevitable water problem and the hassles/expense it would no doubt bring with it.

  • So Skipper: "telling developers to stop it" sounds good. Are you also proposing new immigration controls for the State of California? I'm all for an idnependent Bear Flag Republic, but there are no immigration controls between states. Or, in all practicality, between the United States and our great southern neighbor. "stopping" developers just means housign prices are bi up even higher.

    "I'm sorry, sir. You need to take your family off the Ohio. Also, I hear Peoria has cheap real estate;"

  • California is the canary in the coal mine. America west of the Mississippi better get ready for the 100,000 year drought.

  • "Regarding my comment above, I prefer the Gandhi and MLK Jr. method of change, via non-violent protest."

    Agreed with the caveat that I don't want to end up being a martyr.

    BTW, why hasn't Ghandi been appropriated by the ReiKKKwingerteabaggistgunztardz?

  • A lot of the previously mentioned infrastructure was under way before the new deal and "Soak the rich", it wouldn't take much more in taxes to do what needs to be done, rentiers living off of privatized government programs are a much larger parasitic drag. And on that water thing, a tax tweak to incentivize drip irrigation might be helpful?

  • @ Brian M: Thank you for pointing out the inevitability of population growth.

    I work in the planning field in CA (transportation & land use), and a common refrain I've begun hear from the public is often along the lines of: "We're running out of water, therefore we should disallow the construction of new housing project X."

    This is a short-sighted attitude that neglects two fundamental premises: free migration (as you pointed out), but also natural birth rates. I read recently that CA's population growth projections are no longer driven by in-migration from other states/nations, which historically had been the case. Rather, CA's future growth is now a function of the natural birth rates of Californians who are already here. So even if we could disallow immigration to CA, it wouldn't make a lick of difference.

    As you said: You can't control population growth by controlling the construction of housing. All you do is create a housing shortage. Instead we need to accept that growth is coming, and plan for ways to accommodate it sustainably.

  • schmitt trigger says:

    There is a reason that Roman Polanski's masterpiece: "Chinatown" involves murder, incest, corruption and the LA water supply.

  • "And businesses, of course, know how to do things The Right Way."

    Well, look at California when all this infrastructure was built. When the legislature was entirely in the pocket of Big Ag and real estate developers, instead of only mostly in their pockets like it is now, you could get all sorts of water projects done. When the citizens in the coastal cities start asking why they should continue to subsidize rich families in the Central Valley who own the water rights, things get a little more complicated.

  • And I should add, when they start asking why in the hell are we pouring expensive, subsidized water into growing crops like almonds and strawberries in an arid, drought prone part of the state, you're not going to convince a lot of people to support major infrastructure investments.

  • I asked on a discussion board why they were pouring water on growing rice in the desert when there are several water-abundant places in the USA (gulf coast and southeastern parts, mostly) that already grow rice, and got a whole bunch of hysterical, irrational screaming and childish wishes that the rest of the USA starve to death without California agriculture. One genius actually denied that rice (which spends a good portion of its growth cycle with the bottom third of the plant submerged in water) is a water-intensive plant. This was on a mostly-progressive site–I can't imagine what conservative sites would be like

  • One (calm, rational) argument is that much of the rice in California is actually grown in the northern Sacramento Valley, not really the San Joaquin Valley desert area. California is a big state, and you can't really confuse Coalingua and Yuba City.

    Secondarily, many of the rice fields provide somewhat valuable habitat for migratory birds. So, there are secondary benefits to rice.

    In either case, rice is not low value alfalfa. And almonds don;t really grow very well elsewhere in the country.

  • So, Brian M. And Heisenberg, what domyou propose. I'm being told I can't even wash the desert dirt off my solar panels or wash my car, and they want ombuild 10 hotels and several thousand new homes. Does that mean I'll be forbidden to drink more than two glasses of water a day.

    Irresponsible development is irresonsible development — usually driven by greed — whether it's bullding on a barrier island, a well-defined flood plain, or a major fault line. Developers are not putting up these water guzzlers as a public service.

  • I actually would propose seceeding from the United States. Why should we be yoked to the likes of Steve King, Louie Gomhert, and more importantly, the electorate who keeps picking them?

    THEN we (in California) can talk about immigration controls.

    The reality is: population is still growing. The people need to live somewhere. Housign is already outrageously expensive here. Your position is "screw the newcomers" Which sounds great, but is not very "liberal" or "progressive" is it?

    California housing tracts are far more "responsible" than the ultra low density sprawl that characterizes metropolitan development in the South, Midwest, and East outside the urban cores. Look at the 1/2 lots on spaghetied rural roads outside Atlanta. Or my original hometown, fort Wayne, Indiana, which has really been fundamentally stagnant for thirty + years yet now sprawls out so far they had to build a new bypass freeway because they allowed the first bypass to become one of the truly epic eyesores of American urbanism (Coliseum Blvd-where cheaply built crap big box stores go to die)

    That "sprawl" is far denser, contains sidewalks, is more energy efficient, uses far less water, etc. etc. etc. than your suburban paraidses in Peoria or Dallas or outermost Boston.

  • @Brian, Sacramento may be more temperate than San Joachin, but it still averages less than 17" of rain in a year, when the US average is double that (source: For a crop that needs constant submerging in water, that's not anywhere near enough. As far as bird habitat; native wildgrasses that are suited for the climate would work.

  • I'm not disagreeing entirely with your first point. 17" is not the humid east. But it is not Bakersfield, either, is all I am saying. And, the rainfall levles increase as one moves to the north.

    Waterfowl don't do as well in native wildgrasses. Besides, the native wildgrasses jhave been gone for two hundred years. The grasslands you see now are overwhelmingly Eurasian annuals imported by the Spaniards! Tjhey largely outcompeted the bunch grass originals.

  • Katydid: rice paddies are usually poor draining alluvial clays—ie Northern
    Valley. These hold the water and moisture in place quite well. This then allows for a second crop of a different nature to be grown on the paddock after harvest of the rice which will require less irrigation as the soils are still holding the moisture from the rice crop.

    If you want a nasty crop look no further than cotton. Insanely water intensive—find arial imagery of the Aral (dry) Sea region since intensive cotton farming began—prefer soils that have better drainage and depletes and degrades the soil at a rapid rate.

    Meat, especially cattle, production is fairly water intensive. Both for the animals and for fodder. However, traditional rice production would have fish in the paddies. Thereby maximising the land use. The problem with this practice though is vector control and the use of herbicides. If these two issues could be remedied this has great potential.

    To the North of me they grow cotton in inland NSW. WT…!! This continent by nature is arid, but to grow freaking cotton?!

    Really rainfall means dick. Rain is nice, but it quickly runs off to the oceans. What really counts is snow pack. Snow pack is what will ensure available water throughout low precipitation months, even for years.

  • Thanks, Xynzee! I didn't know all the ins and outs of rice farming, but I lived in places like Japan, the Phillippines, and South Carolina, where rice is grown, and they're all high-rainfall areas with lots of year-round wet land. I know cotton is really problematic not just for the water use, but also for the heavy-pesticide use. BTW, I googled rice water intensive and got a blurb about Australia and the info that rice uses a fifth of the agri water use.

  • @Brian: I've lived in the Chico area (Paradise, to be exact) and know 17" of rainfall in a year is something they'd wish for in their wildest dreams.

    "And, the rainfall levles increase as one moves to the north. "

  • Hi Katydid: Australia being arid it's easy hitting 1/5 of agri-use. But talking to my local farmers they'd rather see that water used for rice than cotton for the reasons stated. Cereal crops by comparison do not use that much water provided there's moisture in the ground. Thus running a second crop after rice harvest. The problems though are fungal growth and vector control (mosquitoes). Historically fungi were treated by burning the stubble after harvest, which returned carbon compounds to the soil. Good! The downside being obvious, smoke (air pollution). V. Bad!
    I know many of our farmers run their livestock through their cultivation paddocks after harvest—cereal crops. They eat the stubble which is pooped and weed out increasing the nitrogen content of the soil :)

    I'm surprised that almond and other tree nuts are water intensive as trees can put down roots.

    Francis? Your input.

  • I used to fly over the West, look down, and think "Look at all that space! We could put all kinds of people here."

    At the time I didn't understand that water was the limiting factor.

  • There's all kinds of things they could be doing in California to conserve water besides what they already do (which, as Brian M mentions, is not nothing).

    End fracking and its groundwater pollution, as well as its direct use of water.

    End export of bottled water to everywhere. Yes, I mean Nestle and its ilk.

    End sod farms, which are the absolute definition of a useless waste just so somebody can order up an instant green lawn. While we're at it, stop growing alfalfa for export to China. I mean, fercryinoutloud.

    Do a much more thorough job of using grey water, trapping urban runoff water, and recycling sewage water to potable standards.

    Institute drip irrigation for all crops where that's feasible. (They don't now for the most part. Almonds don't have to be grown with a gallon of water per nut. Ask the Israelis.)

    Have the local botanical gardens give people templates for good xeriscaping. Unfortunately, a lot of what I'm seeing here in urban SoCal isn't really xeriscaping. It's paving. This will be the opposite of useful because it increases runoff.

    And then, once we've done all that, then start talking about not growing useful stuff like mangos or beef to conserve more water. The LATimes had a good graphic of current water use for various crops.

    We could, you know, actually approach the situation intelligently instead of just smashing things in a panic. Admittedly, that would take coordinated (government) planning and coordinated financial (taxpayer) assistance. Maybe someday enough voters will realize that's a better alternative than dying in a (wild)fire.

  • quixote: All very good points!

    Kayydid: I live in Vacaville, which averages (prior to climate change) 24. Chico is actually slightly wetter, ON AVERAGE than Chico:

    Average precipitation inches (mm)


    Source: Western Regional Climate Center [21]

  • What difference does it make whether we grow almonds for export or only for consumption within California. The question is whether we have sufficient water to grow almonds at all.

  • Profit. That's the difference. Exported almonds are particularly profitable.

    China is increasingly looking to the United States (and other places) to supply food. When you are the factory of the world, industrial pollution makes growing your own food more difficult.

  • Given their respective political clout, I'm looking forward to Cali Ag and Cali Development going into a political Thunderdome. There's a concept called 'carrying capacity' that I haven't heard for a while – the idea that there's a natural limit to how many people a given region's resources can support. But telling people 'you can't move to California' isn't possible.


  • Carrying capacity is related not just to the number of people but also how the people live. Grass lawns and enormous golf courses for the world's most useless activity take more water than xeriscape and townhouses/flats/apartment living.

  • Hi, Bryan, and thanks again for the info (this is sincere–no snark, in case it's not clear)! I had no idea Chico got that much water. Paradise Pines is where I learned to take "Navy showers"; 1 minute of water, then soaping & shampooing with the water off, then 3 minutes of rinsing, and get outta there. We also had rules for the toilet–"if it's yellow, let it mellow". Cleaning a toilet twice a week was much less wasteful of water than flushing every single time. We didn't have a lawn–we had rocks. Imagine my shock when I went further south and saw golf courses, car washes, and sprinklers watering the sidewalks and streets. Don't get me started about private swimming pools in every backyard.

  • Earlier comments of mine touched on water rights. Here I'll go a little into infrastructure.

    California is a big rectangle that drains out the side. Since water is in the north and people (and farms) are in the south, this means moving water across the drain, known as the Bay-Delta. Spend some time playing in your bathtub and you'll realize this is a tricky problem.

    The current solution is dump water into the north of the Bay Delta, fire up some enormous pumps south of the Bay Delta, and pull south the fresh water that wants to flow west, while at the same time ensuring that a salinity line is kept west of a particular location. This has had very significant impacts on the environmental health of the system.

    There are a few reasons to make major changes to the current system. They include:

    (a) there is a lot of farming on islands in the Delta itself. As the islands are peat, the act of farming lowers the surface levels to the point that many islands are 20 feet or more below sea level. These islands are protected by poorly built and poorly maintained levees. Sometimes they fail, and a huge slug of seawater comes surging east. A lot of smart people are concerned that a single levee failure could cause a cascade of failures that lead to seawater coming all the way into the Delta pumps and contaminate the entire system. Even without this problem, there are thousands of miles of very old and increasingly stressed levees.

    (b) The current operational system is destroying endangered species and the entire ecosystem.

    (c) Global warming is going to result in more rain and less snow. The best place to store the rainfall is in the big natural groundwater basins underneath Bakersfield. More water, not less, needs to move across the Delta, but at different times than under the old system. In particular the State needs to capture much more water during rainy years.

    (d) Pitting north vs south or ag vs municipal/industrial is a great way to get nothing done. Comprehensive solutions in which most everyone gets something are easier to get through the legislature.

    So the best solution is to put a large amount of the Sacramento River in a pipe and move it all the way across the Delta, then put a chunk of the rest of the River into creating new aquatic habitat. But that's a $25 billion project. It needs doing, however. We'll see if Brown can leverage the drought to get the votes.

  • While I think it's good to have a debate about what crops California ought to grow and how water is allocated to agriculture, the point I was trying to make is that blaming the failure to invest in water infrastructure on some right-wing, pro-business agenda is fairly backwards.

    The original development of California's infrastructure wasn't some populist project; it was driven almost entirely by powerful agriculture and real estate interests. Modern skepticism about the need to invest many billions dollars of public money to continue to prop up relatively low-value agriculture, on the other hand, has more of a grassroots history.

  • Steve in the ATL says:

    "Grass lawns and enormous golf courses for the world's most useless activity"

    How dare you say this during Masters week!

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