Approaching steady-state economies.

I don’t usually interpolate comments and original text, because I think that’s hard to read, but I thought something different about nearly every line in the “Historical Context” of ACWA’s Sustainability Principles, so I’m going to do it this time.

Historical Context

California’s physical water delivery system is a tribute to the far-sightedness and big thinking of previous generations. Developed largely in the middle of the 20th century, the system has the capability of delivering water throughout the state.

I don’t automatically think that our water projects are great and I mourn the natural systems they destroyed. I like knowing how canals work and I like looking at a grand engineering feat. But I haven’t yet decided that the water projects and the way they shaped the state are good on balance, so I haven’t resolved that they’re a tribute to anyone.

But, I gained a whole lot of appreciation for the water projects a year ago when Atlanta was in their serious drought. From the very little I know, they had one reservoir draining one watershed and one water main to the town. Their reservoir was a few weeks from empty and I could not figure out what they were going to do. They couldn’t build a canal to a river in time to supply their population. You can’t truck in water for millions of people. Their one source was dry and as I worried at the problem from thousands of miles away, I was stumped. They turned to prayer as the solution, which was as good as anything I had to offer. With their limited system, when that reservoir emptied, they would have to evacuate a whole city. Imagine, an intact city evacuated within a week for want of water. I know the end times are upon us and stuff, but it would still be an amazing thing to see such visual evidence of the new era.

That made me really appreciate the extent of our huge intertied system. If it gets to the point where a major city in California has no water, we do have options. Most places have a couple big canals from one large project or another. In an emergency, we could drain some far away reservoir dry and get water to a city within four or five days. You’d have to break environmental laws and it would be expensive, but it could be done. After looking at Atlanta, I was newly grateful for that capacity.


Every Californian benefits from the efforts of water visionaries who provided imported water supplies for our cities, Los Angeles, San Francisco, the East Bay, and elsewhere. By the 1920s, large scale regional management of water secured the economic health of Southern California.

Some people call that the demise of the Owens Valley. These events have names and histories, you know. We don’t have to talk about them in every last document, but vague language about securing the economic health of SoCal underemphasizes a nasty history of bullying, conniving, theft and graft. I drank that water my entire childhood, so I’m not the one to say the LA Aquaduct shouldn’t have happened. But the water visionaries weren’t only heroes.


In the 1940s and 1950s, construction of the Central Valley Project, originally envisioned by Californians in the 1930s but financed during the Great Depression by the federal government, linked water management in the Central Valley from Redding to Bakersfield.

HEY! We’re in a depression right now! Is it coincidence to mention federal financing of water projects during depressions? Just, you know, happening to mention that the fed used to pay for big projects. You know, during depressions. Which we’re in. And, like, there’s this huge canal around the Delta that someone needs to pay for. The feds used to pay for stuff like that at times like these. I’m just sayin’.


The State Water Project, which delivers water to more than two-thirds of Californians, was the masterstroke of Governor Pat Brown and a team of incomparable civil engineers guided by policies laid down in a California Water Plan completed in 1957.

Jerry Brown, Pat Brown’s son, gave a lecture at a class I took in the early nineties. That wasn’t a busy period for him, I guess. I’ve had a one-track mind forever, so I asked him about the water projects and if he would do them again. He got a little quiet and said something very like “I don’t know which to regret more, the water projects or the state highway system.” Huh.


The system developed by these collective efforts served California well during the last half of the 20th century and must continue to do so in the future. However, the system today is in crisis. The economic consequences of failing to respond successfully to this crisis are potentially catastrophic. Many of the challenges we face today as water managers arise from changing natural resource policies and the difficulty of responding to these changing policies with a physical system that was designed and constructed under a very different set of rules.

OK, first I want to give the authors full props for writing “economic” before consequences and in lots of places above. Good for them for making their focus explicit. Given their mission, to develop and provide water to sustain humans, it makes a lot of sense to use human eonomies as a measure of success. It also protects them from quibbles with phrases like “served California well during the last half of the 20th Century”, because you could argue that it devastated fisheries and destroyed grasslands and rivers throughout the state. Which isn’t necessarily serving California well. But if we’re talking about how well they supported human economies, then it makes a lot more sense to say they’ve done well. So, good work for being clear about that.

But, they got the source of their challenges wrong. The problem isn’t that changing natural resource policies have yanked the rug out from under them. The laws about protecting fisheries downstream of dams are really old. The problem isn’t that the system was constructed under different rules and now it is totally unfair that water managers have to play a new game. The problem is that we are approaching the physical limits of the natural system and those limits are starting to bind us. Big and rich as California is, we are at the point where taking or leaving the next piece of water hurts something we value. There has always been slack before, and now we’ve used up a lot of the cheap slack.

If you’re on the water supplier side of things, whining about how the game changed is a way of blaming the hippies that you aren’t getting worshipped the way our engineer ancestors used to be. The hippies aren’t the problem. If we could have water projects and healthy rivers, they wouldn’t be fighting you. The problem is hitting up against the absolute limits of the physical world and adjusting to the mindset of relative scarcity. From here on out, it is all about trade-offs.

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