Oh dear. A grad student wrote me, asking for sources to give her an understanding of California water. I’ve never not been a junky (truly. I did my 5th grade science fair project on watering radishes and my 8th grade History Day LA project on Mulholland and the Owens Valley), so it is hard for me to figure out how I would come into it now. She asked for advice on what to read, since there is so very much material and after a year or so of reading, she still doesn’t understand the lay of the land. That sounds about right to me. I can make suggestions about what to read, but I’d say it took me the better part of two different graduate degrees and a decade of paying attention to start making independent connections. I’ve now worked in agencies on and off for a couple decades, and am entirely ignorant about anything but the Great Valley and its projects. I could not begin to advise her on the Colorado or the Klamath. That said, she asked me, and here are some of the things that gave me insight.
Topics and texts:
Read Cadillac Desert for an understanding of how things were thirty years ago. It isn’t accurate now (in fact, the book made itself obsolete), but Cadillac Desert fundamentally shaped the lay view of water in CA. When a layperson has some outraged simplistic solution to water problems in CA, it’ll be from Cadillac Desert, so it is good to understand where they are coming from.
If you found my blog, you’re probably already reading Aquafornia. Obviously I like the blogs on my blogroll. Dr. Michael is the most interesting voice I’ve heard in a while, because his background isn’t in water and he shows his work.
Since you’re in grad school, take a water law class, and ag or natural resources economics classes (Sunding is good.). Then read up on the behavioral econ critiques of the model of the rational economic actor, since the whole model is deeply flawed. But you’ll hear people talk about market-based solutions all the time, so you have to know what they’re proposing, the limitations of market systems from within the model, and the critiques of the economic model itself. I got lucky and took a History of Agribusiness class from Phil Levine (who boasts that for a year or so, he fully understood the milk marketing system). That was fantastic. Another formative class was an engineering class on water projects. I very much wish that I had taken a basic soils class. That lack taunts me a couple times a year. My good friend would probably say to take a class about fish, but I don’t wish I understood fish as much as I wish I understood soils.
People say to read John Wesley Powell directly, but I did and didn’t get much from it. Honestly, I can’t stand to read any of the general popular books on water, like The Great Thirst or that other one. That’s likely because I’ve done this for too long. I’m sure they’re fine. I hear good things about Battling the Inland Sea, but again, I can’t bring myself to read it.
You know what was fucking fantastic? The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the the Making of a Secret American Empire. Definitely read that.
That leads to the next subject, which is that you have to understand what a water district is. They’re their own weird thing, spun off of a grant of power from the legislature. So get a feel for what powers they have, and how they work (publicly elected boards of directors, a manager serving at the Board’s will, a few stodgy engineers, then staff and ditchriders that do all the work). To get a better sense of the political implications, read this old study about the different voting structures of districts along the 99 and the 5.
Try to get your hands on one of the old California Water Atlas, put out in the 1970’s. They’re real big, bound in navy blue. All the cool kids have one. Don’t know if it has any information you couldn’t find online these days (here it is!), but having one in your office is part of the secret handshake. I have my Dad’s, which might explain why I started on this at a very young age.
If you can find an original California Water Plan, that’s pretty cool too. The optimism is old school; they had the courage of a single purpose vision back then. Spend some time with the plats in the back. There is not a stream in the state those guys wouldn’t dam.
That’s long enough for the moment, although I don’t know if I helped much. At this point, I’m pretty much just taunting any of you who want to know what I think of the Delta plan. I brought it with me, but I’m heading home to get some food. Surely I’ll read the plan right after that.
Oh, and I should have said. Welcome to the field. It is a good one. It stays interesting and there are a lot of niches in it. (Even better, it hires people, which academia doesn’t do.) People in Water do interesting work at levels from the local up to the federal. We’re looking forward to hearing from you.
ADDED LATER: Two more things! There are wise people who understand CA water entirely from the perspective of sediment transfer. A hydrogeomorphology class could well be fascinating.
Also, Storm over Mono is better than readable and explains the Public Trust Doctrine well.
I CAN’T STOP MYSELF: I subscribe to all the NASS California Crop Reports. I love these, mostly because they read like poetry. The other reason is that they give me the sense of scale I need. I purely love to able to say things like “Wheat is strong this year, and I see acreage in cotton is rising.” I’m sure folks in the field knew that two months ago, but now when people tell me that Americans will die of carrot starvation because of a bait fish, I can be sure that carrot acreages are unchanged from last year.