Whose Water? Ours! How to End California’s Water Crisis

Mason Gaffney & Polly Cleveland


It’s sounding again like the drought of 1976-77: “Shower with a friend.” “Put a brick in your toilet tank.” “Fix your leaky faucet.” “Replace your lawn with a cactus garden.” And then the pictures: denuded ski slopes, boat docks resting on the bottom of empty reservoirs, dry brown furrows stretching to the horizon.

Despite all the focus on urban water conservation, agriculture consumes some eighty percent of California water. California is basically a dry state, subject to periodic severe droughts. So, how come the largest water user is cow pasture, watered with giant sprinklers sending great sprays into the atmosphere? How come farmers irrigate those long brown furrows by flooding them, losing great quantities of water to evaporation, and bringing harmful salts to the surface? And how come some farmers even grow rice in flooded paddies, seeding them from airplanes? Why do we see so few elementary efforts to conserve water, such as drip irrigation or mulching fields to protect the soil? Why are irrigation canals not lined and covered to prevent water loss?

California Drought-Obama

Why? Because California farmers get their water free, or close to free. Any of us who have taken elementary economics should be shouting from the rooftops or blasting through cyberspace: if you make something free, you will get waste and shortages!

California’s water crisis derives from history, ideology, and politics.


The California Constitution says that the water belongs to the people. However, farmers may take water provided they put it to “beneficial use,” first come, first served. This is the basis of California “water licenses”, which attach to pieces of land, dated to the time water was first “appropriated.” Absent any definition of “beneficial use”, this is already a recipe for waste: A “senior” water license downstream, used for low-value irrigated pasture, takes precedence over a “junior” water license upstream, used for high-value orange groves.

From 1935-55, federal agencies built many dams and canals, supplementing pre-existing farm water supply on the east side of the Central Valley. The part of that federal water that was administered by the Federal Bureau of Reclamation, however, was subject to the “160-acre limitation,” restricting the amount of land entitled to nearly free water to 160 acres per landowner, and limiting the term of this giveaway to 40 years. (160 acres is a quarter of a square mile.) California’s giant landowners—some left over from 1848 when the U.S. took California from Mexico, but validated the existing Spanish and Mexican land grants—chafed under these restrictions. In the 1960’s, they found a way around it: the California State Water Project (SWP). The SWP brings water from the Feather River in the Sacramento Valley south through the long-abused Sacramento delta, then pumps it up to a canal running south along the west side of the Central Valley, pumps it up again 2000 feet over the Tehachapi mountains into Los Angeles, and conducts it even further south to San Diego. The SWP was financed by California taxpayers, frightened by claims that southern farming and then LA would dry up and blow away without an assured water supply into the 22nd Century. Meanwhile, half that water has gone to irrigate the holdings of the west side land barons. These include the J. G. Boswell dynasty (200,000 acres) and their in-laws the Chandlers (145,000 acres), at that time owners of the LA Times.


The Environmental Defense Fund has proposed a “market” solution to the water problem: transform water licenses into secure and transferable property—and let the market work its wonders! This is equivalent to “cap and trade,” which gives secure “pollution rights” to polluters based on their pollution history. However “cap and trade” at least limits pollution. “Transferable water licenses” simply wouldn’t work. On the one hand, it would invite speculators to grab up water licenses and hold them by wasting water, creating an astronomical “spot market” for emergency water. On the other hand, most owners of water licenses wouldn’t sell, but would rather keep on operating the old inefficient way. “Transferable water licenses” would lock in a system under which every subsidy and giveaway engineered by pork-barrel politics becomes sacrosanct, perpetual property, and taxpayers forever incur ongoing costs of $60 per acre-foot* or more to deliver water for $3.50 per acre-foot to landowners who can resell it for $400 per acre-foot. This is the absurd, unjust sequitur of condoning private seizure of public domain.


Poor perpetually-broke California, trapped by Proposition 13 and other handcuffs on its taxing power! Yet there’s liquid gold underfoot. The state could charge for water, thus recognizing that we the people own the water. Prices would depend on the region: low near the sources, and high at the end of long canals. The state could put a meter on every ground-water pump, and charge accordingly. Overnight, California’s fiscal deficit would become a surplus. Yes, some water-hogging crops like rice and hay and alfalfa might move away, as they should. That would release water for the more valuable, intensive fruit and vegetable crops for which California is famous—and which provide far more employment. The farmers might threaten to “pass on” higher water prices to consumers. But that’s an idle threat, because shifting land and water into higher-valued and more intensive crops will raise the total supply of food marketed. And when the rains come again, the reservoirs will fill and stay filled, and all the little boats will put in again.

You can buy a new collection of Mason Gaffney’s essays at The Mason Gaffney Reader.

*Enough water to cover an acre one foot deep.

This article was originally posted on professor Mason Gaffney’s blog.


1 thought on “Whose Water? Ours! How to End California’s Water Crisis”

    It is not an immediate solution to California’s need for water, but in the long term it is water available which California and the Obama Administration fails to pursue
    California receives hydro power from Canada and could receive water. What’s the hold up? California is not participating in the Columbia River Treaty re-negotiations. started by President Obama in 2014 .Only Washington ,Oregon,Montana and Idaho participating

    Back in 1960 ,California politicians, persuaded by former governor Brown , laudably used foresight to supply all farms and cities for 50 years with two measures 1. Negotiating to get large amounts of -out-of state( Colorado river) water , and 2. Financing to get smaller amounts of Northern California water ,delivered by a “State Water Project
    But in 2015 politicians ,quickly threw in the towel, voted severe water rationing, fines, and ” water police “, They only emulated former governor Brown measure #2 by financing more northern Delta storage .They failed to emulate his measure #1,also getting more out-of-state water

    But TRUTH WILL OUT: they lacked foresight and due diligence in water engineering and budgeting ,because in May 2015 their .officials testified in Sacramento ‘”they couldn’t develop criteria and tell how much Delta storage to build before the Fall of 2016;’ So the amount of Delta water is uncertain, though politicians earlier voted billions for its uncertain cost in November 2014
    What ‘is certain is that California’s forecast 50 year population growth would over time worsen water rationing, shrink farming ,jack food and water prices
    Records show California used more out of state (Colorado) water than northern California water ,Therefore, adopting only the half measure of adding uncertain amounts of Delta water will cause fewer farms ,,lobbiers buying farmland cheap and profitably turning it into housing ,and California cities could start resembling Las Vegas in the desert
    Sadly, politicians overlooked any possible out -of -state water. For example Wm. Shatner, in the LA Times, proposed piping Washington water for drought relief , though some Washingtonians are opposed.
    But why do politicians ignore that on 12/9/2013 ,at a U.S. Congress hearing on the Columbia River Treaty,. Chairman Hastings (R-WA, (509) 543-9396,) asked, and Canada’s Columbia River Treaty Director Eichenberger(250 953 3368) on the record offered more water for US droughts, and more power
    No California Congresspersons attended the hearing, or investigated that Canada could provide plenty water for future DROUGHT RELIEF
    ,Canada has 5 million acre feet ( 5 MAF) surplus water storage ( called “ Non-Treaty storage “) That’s just 2.6 percent of Columbia river flow
    But it’s enough water to provide 120 gallons every day , for each of the 39 million Californians to drink, wash, grow food, water their lawn, and wash their car, even in a drought year
    The (5 MAF) Canadian surplus water is twice the average quantity (2.5 MAF) the California State Water Project delivered. It could fill Shasta Lake(5 MAF) or flood all 800,000 acres of San Joaquin Valley farms with five foot of water, every year . Meantime farmers in the Central Valley are extracting underground water and causing the valley to sink.
    Over the long term Americans have overcome disasters with foresight and diligent planning.so blindly throwing in the towel needs reconsideration
    In 1961 President Eisenhower used foresight to sign the 60 year Columbia River Treaty to prevent disastrous floods killing Americans and destroying Oregon cities. The Canadian dams control floods, produce hydropower, and were 50% paid by American taxpayers , They can also store water to relieve droughts
    President Kennedy who used foresight and succeeded getting US No 1 in space , also used foresight to initiate plans (NAWAP) to move surplus Alaska and Canadian waters into drought- prone American states, including California.,( which so far failed to look into it.)
    President Kennedy did succeed in extending Canadian hydro power to California. Today there still remains untapped hydropower potential , enough to supply an additional five million Californians with” eco-friendly” power below current cost ,
    California receives water from the Colorado River because of agreements with neighboring states. Accessing the Columbia River would require similar agreements with Oregon and Washington, which are not impossible to achieve. Washington and Oregon cannot use that surplus Canadian in most years, so can then let it run into a future northern connector to the existing California “ State Water Project”
    Otherwise, Canadian water running in the Columbia river all ends in the Pacific Ocean. The city of Carlsbad, California, is building a costly desalinization plant to provide water to citizens . The cost of water from Canada would likely be far less than the cost to desalinize the same volume of water in California

    The big question is, why are politicians failing to consider every possible source, including Canada, for additional water in all their rhetoric about the drought.?

    Their answers will interest viewers now uncertain about shrinking water rations .for the FUTURE of their KIDS, GRANDKIDS , Business, Property or Farm
    =======END NEWSTIP ====
    Author of news tip: Bruce Farr, Ed.D (USC82) [email protected],, President Tumbleweed Chapter, California Retired Teachers Association, 2006-2008; born, raised, educated, employed `37 years, property-owner, has 4 KIDS and 10 GRANDKIDS in California; author of Speak Clear English; now retired in Deerfield Beach FL 33441

    Facts Verified by three Californians: i/Bay Area engineering vp TOM DILLON .ii/Oakland attorney ROBERT WILLIAMS,. and iii/ Lawrence. BAKER retired SanDiego newspaper executive, They contacted congressman Miller, senator Feinstein (202) 224-3841 and governor Brown( 916) 445-2841, plus other politicians and officials , but got no feedback.

    Summarised by Vern Ruskin ,PE (WA), P Eng(BC), PhD, MCom, B Sc; email: [email protected] ; He was Director of Planning for BC (British Columbia) Electric and directed 45 staff on Columbia River dam engineering for the Treaty signed 1961 by President Eisenhower. He subsequently researched the issue of water and power for California and the Northwest for a lifetime, because of US clients , and wrote a book about possible Treaty improvements. He taught 14 years at UBC “Engineering Economics”



    1. “The Future of the US-Canada Columbia River Treaty – Building on 60 years of Coordinated Power Generation and Flood Control” Archived Video Webcast: Member Statements: The Honorable Doc Hastings, Dec 9, 2013.,transcript of Doc Hastings and Kathy Eichenberger


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