A Newsletter about California Water, Land, and People

California Water: A Primer

"Not many people know I carry their end of conversation when I want to talk about water deliveries, even when I stress that these deliveries affect their lives, indirectly, every day. 'Indirectly' is not quite enough for most people I know."

- Joan Didion, "Holy Water," The White Album

Water in California is a resource of extremes and it lies at the center of California's future prospects. In the last generation, the state experienced two major droughts and three major floods. The future promises that these extremes will only increase. With today's population already at 34 million, the state government anticipates a population of 58 million Californians by 2040.

Colorado River Aqueduct, Mojave Desert, 1980.
Photo courtesy of the California
Department of Water Resources.

California strains its water supply to keep up with its Midas-like economic growth and urban development. While the state's water system is a triumph of engineering talent and economic wealth, its successes are offset by troubling social and ecological conflicts.

Cities sprawl across California's landscapes without regard to whether enough water can be found to supply them. Large-scale agribusinesses urge construction of more reservoirs and canals, as well as creation of elaborate water markets that could potentially allocate water flexibly, but at great cost to the economies of rural California communities.

To achieve its status as the world's sixth largest economy, California's agricultural and urban regions draw to themselves vast quantities of energy, water, capital, and people. The state owes a heavy debt to nature, for its cities, farms, reservoirs, and transportation infrastructure burden natural ecosystems, hydrologic cycles, and airsheds with habitat reduction and industrial pollution.

Because water is the source of all life, its relative scarcity makes it the crucial resource that limits where and by how much California cities and farms grow in the future. All parties to California's water conflicts agree that increasing water conservation is crucial to the state's future. After years of striving, there is no clear agreement on the best way to provide for California's future. And with the energy and power crises now facing the state, California's water, land, and people must face an even more clouded future economically as well, because at a minimum, water must be pumped where it is needed using electricity.

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Portions of this page appeared first in Social Studies Review, 1999.