Book Review: Thirsty, by Marc Weingarten

For aficionados of California water history, there is probably no better-known story than the conflict over water between Los Angeles and the residents of Owens Valley that occurred in the early 20th century.  This famous episode has been told and re-told countless times and has been the subject of numerous extensive treatments by capable scholars including Abraham Hoffman, Norris Hundley, Donald Jackson, William Kahrl, Gary Libecap, Marc Reisner, and John Walton.  Thus, when another book, like this new one by journalist Marc Weingarten, comes along and tells the story yet again, it needs to be clear why another treatment is warranted.  I think the answer is that it depends upon two things: how much you already know about the story, and how much you want to know.

If you are relatively new to studying California water history, there may be no better place to start than reading about the Los Angeles-Owens Valley episode.  It is not just that it is a rollicking good story, full of intrigue, sabotage, violence, political chicanery, and vivid personalities.  It is also of historical significance, being the first major long-distance transfer of water within the state.  And as such, it inaugurated the modern era of water development in California, in which various factors have given rise to steadily increasing pressures to move water around the state.

If you are not already familiar with the story, this book is a nice introduction.  Weingarten hits the main highlights of the story, constructs a sustaining narrative based on the life of the principal protagonist William Mulholland, provides some useful insights into important aspects of the dispute, and writes in an engaging, lively journalist’s way.

If you are already familiar with the episode from having read previous scholarly treatments, there is not a whole lot in Weingarten’s narrative that will surprise you.  Many of the details are well known, including the historical context of rapid growth in Los Angeles at the turn of the century and the resulting increasingly urgent demands for new water development.  These twin facts gave rise to the behind-the-scenes intrigue behind Los Angeles’ ultimately successful attempts to acquire Owens Valley’s water and the role played by various key personages including Los Angeles mayor Fred Eaton, the double agent Joseph Lippincott, and most notably, William Mulholland.  And finally, Weingarten ably discusses Mulholland’s personal traits and quirks, which probably ultimately contributed both to the successful construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct and the tragic collapse of the Saint Francis Dam.  But the narrative is well-constructed and the writing is lively and engaging.

What professional historians may find somewhat dissatisfying is the relative lack of contextualization of the narrative within existing scholarship.  One of the interesting issues surrounding the episode concerns how to properly interpret the roles played by Los Angeles and Owens Valley.  Early histories of the episode were remarkably one-sided and highly selective in their use of evidence to favor one side or the other.  However, recent histories by scholars such as William Kahrl, Abraham Hoffman, and Gary Libecap have put forth considerably more nuanced views of what happened and why.  Though Weingarten cites many of these earlier studies at various junctures in his argument, he does not provide a clear idea of how his argument fits with previous scholarship.  Thus, professional historians may come away uncertain as to the book’s scholarly contribution.

Having said that, I would argue that this book plays a useful role in making this important event in California water history more widely known to a general readership.  Professional histories can sometimes overwhelm more casual readers with more details and information than they really want, or often, need.  As a popular history, this book works well in telling the basic story of Los Angeles vs. Owens Valley in an engaging way.  And speaking for myself as a professional economic historian, this book will have served an important function if it encourages readers intrigued by the set of events in the story to delve more deeply into other studies for more of the details.

A water right for the environment

A modest proposal, by Brian Gray, Leon Szeptycki, and Buzz Thompson:

Some excerpts from California WaterBlog:

California’s management of water is not working for anyone. Environmental advocates argue that state and federal regulators have set water quality and flow standards that do not adequately protect fish and wildlife, and have not enforced these requirements when they are most needed. Farm and urban interests claim that these regulations have been ineffective and cause unnecessary economic harm. These water users may incur additional cutbacks in their water supplies if regulators conclude that more water is needed to support struggling fish populations, making planning for producers difficult. Amidst this tension, native fish populations in the state have continued to plummet.

This ironic situation—in which both sides believe they bear a disproportionate burden of water shortages and regulatory uncertainty—cries out for reform. We should start by granting the environment a water right.

We recommend that California move away from the long-standing policy of protecting water quality and instream flows by restricting the exercise of water rights, and instead foster a new policy that integrates environmental uses into the water rights system. This reform will increase the efficiency and flexibility of environmental water management and enhance certainty for all water right holders.

The centerpiece of our proposal is the creation of Ecosystem Water Budgets (EWBs) for the state’s principal watersheds. An EWB is a defined quantity of water that would be flexibly allocated to meet ecosystem management objectives. This concept includes several key features:

  • Watershed-based planning. Local water managers, water users, and environmental and fishing groups would draft “watershed ecosystem plans” that would determine the volume of water needed to ensure the ecological integrity of each river system. These plans also would designate priorities for the use of the EWB under varying hydrologic conditions.
  • Functional flows and integrated objectives. The quantity of water assigned to each EWB would be based on a “functional flows” assessment of the most effective flow regime for the ecosystem as a whole. This would stand in marked contrast to the current regulatory approach to environmental protection, which focuses on the needs of individual species by regulating individual stressors such as water diversions and discharges of pollutants.
  • Independent and flexible administration. An independent trustee for the watershed would administer each EWB. The trustee would manage the ecosystem water as an environmental water right with the same prerogatives as other water right holders. The trustee’s primary responsibility would be to deploy the ecosystem water to fulfill the objectives of the watershed ecosystem plan and annual watering plans that define the specific goals of ecosystem water management in light of current and projected hydrologic conditions and water availability.

These changes would promote efficiency and certainty for all water users. Assigning water to the EWBs based on an integrated functional flows approach would direct the available water to the most valuable ecological services within each watershed. And the quantity of ecosystem water would be fixed, providing assurances to other water users in the watershed. The trustees would have to fulfill their stewardship responsibilities within the assigned budget or acquire additional water from other users. Conversely, the assigned ecosystem water would be off-limits to other water users unless they purchase surplus water from the trustees or acquire it through voluntary exchanges.

California’s aquatic ecosystems are fragile and ill-prepared for future droughts and a warming climate. We have a window of opportunity before the next drought strikes to adopt policies that encourage more creative and effective management of water assigned to essential ecological functions.

For the full report, click here.

Don’t look now…

California is currently experiencing a very dry month of December, scarcely eight months after Governor Jerry Brown officially announced the end of perhaps the worst drought in California history.

Snowpack levels in the Sierra Nevadas are down to 37 percent of normal, and about one third of California is experiencing dry conditions, especially in the southern part of the state.  Wildfires have destroyed nearly 500,000 acres in southern California and caused over $10 billion in damages.  And there is no rain or snow in the immediate National Weather Service forecast.

Experts say it is still to early to panic, as the news is not all bleak.  Northern California is actually in pretty good shape as we speak, with average precipitation conditions for the year and reservoirs at close to normal levels.

Yet there is cause for concern.  According to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, long-term forecasts indicate a La Nina effect this winter.  This means the distinct possibility of “below-median precipitation across the southern tier of the United States.”

Assorted links

Climate change and water woes drove ISIS recruiting in Iraq.

“This beast [ISIS] has many causes, but in the countryside these new problems just pushed people over the edge,”

Apple and Wal-Mart are helping China crack down on polluters.

New app has identified more than 830,000 cases where factories were either pumping excessive quantities of waste or falsifying data by tampering with monitoring devices.

Mishawaka robotics students propose app to help prevent groundwater contamination.

Negotiations to start next year on updating the Columbia River Treaty.

The treaty is “an issue of paramount importance to the entire Pacific Northwest region as it affects our economy, power generation, electricity rates, and flood control needs of communities.”


Book Review: Jay Lund on Fleck’s “Water is for fighting over”

Some excerpts:

Most expressions on Western water issues are reflex or studied advocacy favoring a single viewpoint or opposing other viewpoints.  A minority provide thoughtful and reasonably balanced insights.  John Fleck’s new book, “Water is for fighting over” is at the 1% extreme of thoughtful readable pieces on western water.  The book is one of the most insightful and helpful works on Western water since Cadillac Desert.

Although the work focuses on the Colorado River, its lessons and observations are likely to resonate throughout the American West, dry parts of the world, and for those managing natural resources more generally.  His observations represent a new and more useful view of how to manage the wicked problems of western water.

Water problems will not lead to the broad collapse of civilization in the American West. The West’s overall economy is now largely uncoupled from needing abundant quantities of water.  The urban economies that produce more than 90% of Western wealth have found that they can continue to grow with relatively little water use.  Conservation happens, despite its costs.

Progress is often incremental, incomplete, and opportunistic. Droughts, earthquakes, and lawsuits are both problems and opportunities to make progress.  Persistence across generations is probably needed, as progress on some problems allows work on imperfections.

Real progress is possible in Western water.  Although there will be pain, we are not doomed. Progress and sustained success can come from persistent informal dedication from individuals and organizations who do not hide behind easy rhetorical myths and work towards their long term interests.  Only fighting over water is a losing battle.

On-demand water desalination?

From Science Daily:

Scientists report that they have developed a method for harnessing light to generate electricity from water.  This method, they say, could possibly be used to manufacture a device that would desalinate seawater by exposing it to sunlight.

There are a lot of things we don’t know about this new discovery.  It is often difficult to move from basic research to final commercial feasibility.  At this point, it is impossible to know how costly it would be for this technology to produce large amounts of potable water.  However, if (have I already said this is a big if?) the technology pans out, it could address what has been an oft-raised objection to traditional desalination methods: that they require enormous capital expenditures on large-scale desalination facilities.

Traditional desalination facilities are large affairs, costing hundreds of millions of dollars to build and tens of millions of dollars to operate.  Demand for them tends to go up during water shortages, which is when they tend to get built, to provide supplemental sources of water.  But then, when the shortage passes, they stand idle, and many see them as a big boondoggle.

This issue was raised in a recent panel discussion of desalination at University of California, Irvine.  There, Professor Newsha Ajami of Stanford objected to desalination by pointing out the experience of the city of Santa Barbara in the 1980’s in building an expensive desalination plan in the midst of a drought.  Said Ajami:

Why pay higher prices for desalinated water on a permanent basis if it’s only needed during the occasional drought?

I would argue that there is no reason why the desalination plant would  necessarily have to go idle after the drought passes.  Even if it is not needed immediately, water could be produced and stored, perhaps by injecting it into groundwater aquifers.

The new technology may not address other objections raised to desalination, such as the production of large amounts of salt as a waste product, and the local environmental impacts on local marine life.  But at least Ajami’s objection could be countered if water could be desalinated on demand, as the new technology promises.  Plus, the new technology would rely on solar energy, which would help address another concern of traditional desalination plants: that they require large amounts of energy.

Again, we may be a long way from commercialization, but this new discovery might be worth pursuing to see if it can be a significant source of low-cost water that takes little fossil fuel energy to produce.

“The most important environmental case in the country”(?) to be heard tomorrow

The lawsuit has been brought by 21 youth plaintiffs ranging in age from 10 to 21, challenging the federal government to develop a comprehensive plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“If this case goes forward, that will have a huge impact. It will become the most important environmental case in the country, arguably in the world,” James May, a professor of law and chief sustainability officer at Widener University, told Bloomberg Environment. “It will be the only place in the United States where there’s a court that’s hearing arguments about the future of the United States’ climate policy.”

The plaintiffs are making two basic arguments.  First, they claim there is a constitutional right to a livable climate.  The government has violated that right by failing to take steps to combat climate change.  Second, they claim the government has shirked its duty to protect the country’s natural resources, under the so-called public trust doctrine.

On the other hand, some observers have suggested that it is difficult to imagine how any ruling emerging from the case, especially one with a broad mandate, could effectively advance U.S. climate policy.  Said one:

“So many federal policies are interwoven. I think this is precisely the kind of case to show a national coordinated effort to address these questions may in fact be needed, but to utilize the court with these sorts of theories has the potential to create chaos on an issue of such significance,”

The suit was originally brought in 2015.  But it initially had a tough time gaining traction because the Obama administration could plausibly argue that it was taking steps to try to reduce emissions.  With the Trump administration, however, “that argument has flown out the window off the 20th story floor,” said one observer.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit will hear oral arguments in Juliana v. United States tomorrow, December 11.

GW management fees get boost from California courts

Last Monday, the California Supreme Court ruled that water conservation districts need not seek approval from local voters in order to charge fees to fund groundwater replenishment projects.  The ruling is an important step toward ensuring that local districts will in fact be able to fund projects to replenish groundwater, as mandated under groundwater legislation enacted in 2014.

The suit was brought by the city of Ventura against the United Water Conservation District, challenging a district policy that it says charged excessive fees for groundwater management fees to municipal users.  They argue that the fees violate Proposition 218 and Proposition 26, voter-approved measures that made it harder for agencies to impose certain kinds of fees.

This is pretty big news.  The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) passed in 2014 was a historic step forward in state efforts to manage its groundwater supplies.  For the first time in state history, groundwater users in stressed basins are now required by law to undertake groundwater management.  Importantly, the SGMA left it to local districts to come up with policies to manage groundwater.  If history is any indication, local districts would be hard-pressed to enact fees if they require voter approval.

Some evidence that this is the case can be found in groundwater management plans that were submitted to the state prior to 2014.  These plans, which may be found on the state Department of Water Resources website, were voluntarily drawn up and submitted to the state under previous legislation.  Though not binding, they tell us a lot about policies likely to garner local voter support.

Take, for example, two such plans created under previous groundwater legislation, one by the Westlands Water District and the other by the Tulare Irrigation District.

In 1996, the Westlands Water District, a large water district located near Fresno, created one of the earliest voluntary groundwater management plans.  How it proposed to manage its groundwater is striking.  Besides no-brainers such as monitoring groundwater conditions and working with other agencies, five things stand out about the plan.

First, it proposed to address issues of overdraft by seeking new supplies of surface water from outside the district.  Second, it opposed any increases in groundwater exports, unless an equal amount of other waters were imported to compensate.  Third, it proposed to improve water use efficiency through such means as irrigation scheduling, technical assistance, and preventive maintenance of the District’s distribution system.  Fourth, nowhere was there proposed any controls on individual groundwater pumping.  Finally, it required any fees for groundwater management to be subject to majority approval by local landowners.  In other words, farmers in Westlands were asked to make few sacrifices, and groundwater management was to take place primarily through bringing in more water, while not permitting any to leave.

A similar picture emerges from the groundwater management plan of the Tulare Irrigation District, enacted in 2010.  This plan was considerably more extensive and detailed than that of Westlands, but it contained many of the same principles.  One of its central objectives was to “preclude” any exports of water that would adversely affect local groundwater supplies.  Maintaining groundwater levels was to be achieved through a combination of recharge activities and water conservation, but considerably more emphasis was placed on boosting supplies than reducing demand.  Like Westlands, it required any fees to be subject to approval by landowners, but that this was to be considered “only as a last resort.”

If Westlands and Tulare Irrigation District are any indication, local groundwater users are strongly inclined to avoid having to make tough choices to deal with groundwater scarcity.  Their first choice is to augment supplies, while only paying for improved groundwater management if they absolutely have to.  If local districts were required to submit all fees to local voter approval, my guess is that this would throw major roadblocks in the way of more effective local groundwater management.