California water politics is not a graduate school seminar

Submitted: Aug 28, 2017
Badlands Journal editorial board

My own ideological affiliation?  “More research is needed.”  My ideological heresy? We don’t need all that much money for research if we work and communicate earnestly, and often collectively, to make research relevant and useful. -- Jay Lund is a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California – Davis, where he is also Director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.


Sooooo, to interpret: "I'm not asking just for myself, but for other PhDs, too..."??? (Pssst: as long as they come from UC Davis.)

Years ago, when public attention was first focused on the collision between expanding populations of Sea otters and the Morro Bay abalone fishery, I attended a weekend workshop on the topic at UC Santa Barbara. In an extra-curricular session held at a divers' bar in Morro Bay, the lead professor warned activists on both sides of the problem: Don't let academia colonize the problem.

In other words, California water politics is not a graduate seminar at UC.

Corollary: And we are not going to permit ourselves to be lectured to and our political efforts and our earnest opponents belittled by The Faculty.

Some of us graduated from college. And not all college graduates regard a critical attitude toward academic utterance of the quality of what follows below as an act of anti-intellectualism. That ain't our "ideological affiliation."

--Bill Hatch






California WaterBlog

A biologist, economist, engineer and geologist walk onto a bar…

We hold our convenient truths to be self-evident – Dangerous ideas in California water

Jay Lund

Success in water management requires broad agreement and coalitions.  But people often seem to group themselves into communities of interests and ideology, which see complex water problems differently.  Each group tends to hold different truths to be self-evident, as outlined below.

These beliefs, when firmly held, do not stand up to scientific scrutiny, appear to other groups as self-serving nonsense, and hinder cooperative discussions on better solutions.  The counter-productive aspects of these ideas make them dangerous to policy discussions.  Since accomplishment in water policy requires a pretty broad consensus, these ideas ultimately become dangerous even to their advocates:

<!--[if !supportLists]-->1.  <!--[endif]-->There is a silver bullet solution. If only California [desalinated seawater, built more storage, used less water, recycled wastewater, imported water from Canada, captured more stormwater, …, invested in my project], its water problems would be solved.  The most effective water systems in California, such as those that were most successful during the drought, adopt a portfolio approach, with a variety of thoughtfully integrated water supply and demand reduction activities.  Strategic water management is more like good diversified financial investing, rather than betting on a winning horse.

<!--[if !supportLists]-->2.  <!--[endif]-->I win if you lose. It is often hard to know if you are winning in California’s water conflicts.  How much better off will the environment or farming be with more water?  Some, rather than answering this complicated question, find it easier to measure success by the amount of water denied to a competing interest.  Identifying villains is often convenient for politics and fund-raising, even as it distorts issues and solutions, and makes cooperation almost impossible.  The stereotypical Westlands vs. delta smelt conflict is an example where each “side” views their success in terms of how much water it prevented the other from receiving.  The strategy of opposing success by others only makes effective solutions more difficult to discuss and achieve.

<!--[if !supportLists]-->3.  <!--[endif]-->We can “solve” or “fix” water problems. Some problems can be solved permanently.  But California is a dry state with a huge, dynamic economy, massive irrigated agriculture, and a diversity of native ecosystems; it will never completely solve its water problems.  California will always have water problems and conflicts, which will change with time – as they always have.  Yet, California has managed to have tremendous economic prosperity and agricultural productivity while remaining a relatively good place for people to live despite its dry Mediterranean climate.   Even with water problems, we largely succeed anyway. But we can do better, especially in protecting our native ecosystems.  Discussions of solutions should be realistic about not solving all problems for all time.

<!--[if !supportLists]-->4.  <!--[endif]-->Someone else should pay. Finance is always easier if someone else pays.  We all want federal or state funds.  Water bonds pass costs on to the not-yet-voting future.  Alas, the water sector is one of the wealthiest parts of government.  State, federal, and bond funds are supported by general taxes or reductions in programs that serve poorer-than-average folks.  Reliance on state, federal, and bond funds often adds costs and skews programs away from being effective.  Getting money from others becomes a substitute for effective water management.   Water development in California should be set up more on a ‘pay as you go’ basis, with more stable funding for public and environmental purposes.

<!--[if !supportLists]-->5.  <!--[endif]-->Regulation will protect the environment. Regulations are good for preventing bad things, and environmental regulations have stopped many environmentally bad things since the 1970s.  But regulations alone have been ineffective at rebuilding the environment and protecting it in the face of many poorly anticipated changes – such as invasive species, non-point pollution, climate change, and population growth.  If we want good things to happen environmentally, we need to organize and fund ourselves so that good things happen.  Historically, we largely overcame massive public health problems only when we organized local, state, and federal agencies to solve these problems broadly and inspect and work with each other, with steady and substantial local and state funding.

<!--[if !supportLists]-->6.  <!--[endif]-->We were promised. Over the last 150 years, almost every water interest has been promised their ideal water delivery by some politician or law.  At some time, we (or our revered predecessors) accepted the promise in lieu of a less convenient but more realistic statement of what could be done. We all know that such promises can rarely be met.  This applies to water contractors, water right-holders, environmentalists, floodplain residents, and water users alike.  We all have unrequited aspirations.  Dwelling on these disappointments disrupts discussions and work towards better solutions.

<!--[if !supportLists]-->7.  <!--[endif]-->We need trust. No group can manage California’s water problems alone.  Trust makes working with others much easier.  But there is often little trust.  We all buy cars and houses from people we do not trust and vote for politicians that we should not trust.  If trust were a pre-requisite for business dealings, we would all be growing our own food, living in tents, and mostly dying young.  “Lack of trust” as a reason not to talk or advance is self-fulfilling and ultimately self-defeating – unless you are enamored with the status quo.  Earning each other’s trust is good, but finding ways to work together anyway is needed, in all walks of life.

<!--[if !supportLists]-->8.  <!--[endif]-->It will work as planned. California is a complex system that is always changing and has many uncertainties.  Planning is essential, but the idea that everything will go as planned is absurd.  Still, it is often politically convenient to represent plans as perfect.  We need to prepare plans and resources so that they can accommodate imperfections.  This is sometimes called adaptive management.

These dangerous ideas often have short-term benefits to particular groups – bringing public attention, raising money, establishing a firm negotiating position, and garnering and promoting internal cohesion within a community of interest.  But sticking to such ideas is ultimately self-defeating, impedes actual advancement for all interests, and demonstrates a lack of long-term seriousness of purpose and thought.

Success in water management in California will never be absolute, but we can do better if we avoid cynicism and work out how to more effectively discuss and better cooperate.  Doing so will require effort, creativity, trade-offs, working across diverse agencies and groups, and dispensing with some convenient but dangerous ideas that get in our way.

My own ideological affiliation?  “More research is needed.”  My ideological heresy? We don’t need all that much money for research if we work and communicate earnestly, and often collectively, to make research relevant and useful.

Further reading

Hanak, E., J. Lund, A. Dinar, B. Gray, R. Howitt, J. Mount, P. Moyle, and B. Thompson, Managing California’s Water:  From Conflict to Reconciliation, Public Policy Institute of California, San Francisco, CA, 500 pp., February 2011.

Hanak, E., J. Lund, A. Dinar, B. Gray, R. Howitt, J. Mount, P. Moyle, and B. Thompson. 2010. “Myths of California water: implications and reality.” West-Northwest 16(1): 3-73

Lund, J. (2017), Reflections on Cadillac Desert, J. Lund, July 9,

Lund, J. (2016) How bad is water management in California?, June 26,

Sabatier, P.A. and H.C. Jenkins-Smith (1993), Policy Change And Learning: An Advocacy Coalition Approach, Westview Press.

Wiens, J. , J. Zedler, V. Resh, T. Collier, S. Brandt, R. Norgaard, J. Lund, B. Atwater, E. Canuel, and H.J. Fernando (2017), “Facilitating Adaptive Management in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta,” San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science, Vol. 15, No. 2, July.

On a more modest, but effective level, driven in part by regulation, in part by other pressures including the threat of lawsuits, consider what San Joaquin County is doing about a small rural area known as Cooper's Corner: -- blj



Fighting floods — and using them?

ACAMPO — When last winter’s atmospheric river storms pummeled farmland east of Lodi, a different “river” of water began flowing through the vineyards and down Acampo Road right toward an isolated neighborhood known informally as Cooper’s Corner.

Storm drains were overwhelmed. Water backed up into people’s yards and, in some cases, their homes. Water climbed the steps of the Houston School near Acampo Road and Highway 99, and spilled into a convenience store across the street.

Viviano Saldana, 53, was forced to pump out his basement four times in the span of two days.

“We were pretty scared when the water came up that high,” he said Friday.

That’s why Saldana is happy that the county intends to do something about it very soon, digging a new $2.4 million drain that will shunt floodwaters around the neighborhood. The work should be done by next rainy season.

But that’s just the beginning. Eventually, county officials hope to devise ways to collect future floodwater on empty fields, allowing it to percolate into the ground for future use.

That’s the kind of strategy which, applied on a large scale, could stabilize declining groundwater levels and help the county comply with new state regulations.

To San Joaquin County Supervisor Chuck Winn, it’s an example of addressing water issues more holistically.

“We talked for five years about the drought or a lack of water, and we’re talking about a flood right now,” Winn told county water commissioners earlier this month. “And yet, when we have these conversations, we don’t talk in the same vein. They really are part and parcel with each other.”

Much of the water that flows into the freshwater-starved Delta is not “wasted,” as some like to say. But there are times of high runoff when more water could be stored underground while still meeting environmental flow requirements.

Elias DeSantiago, a truck dispatcher who lives on Acampo Road, saw this firsthand. The water never quite made it over the threshold of his front door in January, but it did flood the crawl space beneath his home, shorting out his electrical system, damaging his foundation and ruining his washer and dryer. He estimated the damage at $56,000 and said he didn’t have flood insurance to cover it.

DeSantiago, 42, said he is filing a claim with the county, arguing that the drainage problem should have been fixed after the 1997 floods. He also thinks the county’s new plan doesn’t go quite far enough.

“This flood was because of their system,” he said.

Winn acknowledged earlier to water commissioners that the storm drain system in the county has become “impaired” because many drains have been blocked or filled in.

“We really need to take inventory of the entire county to repair and restore what was originally in place,” he said.

But the situation at Cooper’s Corner is complicated. County Public Works Director Kris Balaji said floods have been occurring in the area since the 1950s and that for reasons not entirely clear, the homes weren’t built to floodplain standards. Farmers have also changed the topography of the fields that surround the neighborhood, making water more likely to drain toward the urban area.

Finding money for a fix has also been a challenge, Balaji said. The new permanent drain is partially funded by a federal grant; as for the longer-term idea of putting some of that water into the ground, that will be a different story.

“That’s going to cost big dollars. We need the financial support from benefiting property owners,” Balaji said.

Winn said the county has been in talks with farmers about developing “mini-basins” where water could be stored during storms, then allowed to percolate into the ground. Specific plans haven’t yet been written, but one idea is to encircle the properties with berms to hold the water while it sinks into the soil. The discussions include compensation for landowners, Winn said.

The county has been looking at properties not only in the Acampo Road area but also near Peltier Road, farther north. A new roadside ditch will also eventually be built along Peltier.

It’s not just about protecting Cooper’s Corner or other vulnerable urban pockets. It’s also about protecting county roads, some of which were dunked for extended periods of time last winter.

“It was like a river going across the road last winter,” Winn said. “Eventually that causes it to fail which means you’ve got to replace it, which costs a lot of money.”


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