California Water Politics — We Can’t Live Without ‘Em


You may have heard people suggest that water should be depoliticized.

As messy and contrived as it may seem, California’s water supply is probably managed better than most, using politics.  Ever since humankind moved out of the Garden, water supply has been decided by politics.  And, in many cases without a democratic system like California’s, water politics have led to battles, both legal and physical.  Tribes fighting tribes, ranchers fighting ranchers, kings fighting kings, nations fighting nations, . . .

No matter how it transpires, decisions about water are ultimately made by politics.  In California, a water rights system and administrator were established by a political body, the California Legislature and Governor, in 1914.  In some other states, water is allocated by formula or level of need or priority of use, or whatever.  But, any system of distributing water, and the rules/persons making the decisions, were put in place through politics.  The people either elected to establish the system or elected the leaders who established the system.

Let’s pretend for a minute that all water rights in California were completely extinguished and a “God Squad,” made up of analysts and administrators, not politicians, was put in place to decide how much water each and every farmer, manufacturer, railroad, power plant, water agency, etc, should receive on a given day. To do so, the panel would use a super computer, based on supply and demand data and “science.”  Beyond the utterly unfathomable complexity of such decisions by a seeming water decision machine, those decisions are already political at their heart because either voters or elected officials had to select who would be on the panel.

Now, let’s replace the God Squad with a computer to eliminate any human judgment.   Again, the water allocation decisions are political because some group of elected officials would have to vote to select the computer manufacturer and software company, award a contract, and establish the criteria used by the software to make its decisions.

There is no escaping politics when it comes to making water supply decisions.

In California’s current extreme drought, the politics have just begun to heat up.  As the State Water Resources Control Board prepares to cut back deliveries to water rights holders, there are going to be complex political and legal arguments made by all parties.  The good news is that so far Californians have pulled together to look for solutions.  The politics have been an asset, not a liability.  Everyone is sort of on their best behavior, even though not everyone agrees with every decision, like how to comply with the Governor’s edict for urban dwellers to cut back their water use by 25%.

In a free and democratic society, it will ultimately be up to the people (and maybe the courts) as to who are the winners and losers in the water supply tug of war.   But, we can guarantee it will be messy on the way there, because democracy is messy by its very nature.  But, Californians work together for the common good when crisis looms.


Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail as the political system sorts it all out.  For example, all the media outlets have selected almond farmers as the bad guys in the current crisis, because almond trees tend to use more water per acre than most other crops.  But, they are just a scapegoat at this point.  As water costs go up, the market system and California consumers will eventually sort out how many acres of almond trees we need in California.  It would be hasty and dangerous for urban dwellers to swing the ax of their millions of votes to start dictating politically what farmers can and can not grow.  Save the politics for how much water the farmers receive and let them figure out what to grow.  Such government crop control smacks of another less favorable political system that has repeatedly failed to feed people in other parts of the world.  But, perhaps politics can help agriculture become even more water efficient to the benefit of everyone, including farmers.

Let’s not try to depoliticize water supply decisions.  Let’s just use our politics wisely and with collegiality.  There is lots of room for improvement in California’s water supply allocations, even sea changes in water rights and water costs.  So, let’s all work together and show how politics can solve the crisis effectively and not make it worse.

And, by the way, don’t forget all of us in California need to protect our agriculture.  It touches each and every one of us each and every day.  That’s not politics, just common sense.