An innocent lost.

(Edited January 2016)

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 Maven’s Notebook. Obviously I like the blogs on my blogroll.

Since you’re in grad school, take a water law class, and ag or natural resources economics classes.  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 LeVeen (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 Gooddall, Sullivan and De Young’s 1977 work on water districts about the different voting structures of districts along the 99 and the 5.  Wischemann’s 1990 paper on farm size and the health of towns is very good and relevant (reference added to this post in Jan 2016).

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.


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13 responses to “An innocent lost.

  1. Jerry

    Rather than eating before reading the Delta Plan (Draft #1) maybe a good stiff drink might be a better idea. I love your blog.

  2. I’m a newby to the water world myself, especially on the policy/legislative/sheer madness of it all side. And I have the added advantage/disadvantage of being in Oregon, which means I am still trying to imagine how YOUR water issues will ultimately impact OURS. But ignorant as I am about such things, I do know a thing or two about education and learning. So, I’m thinking your student might also benefit from a little time right at the water’s edge. Or better still some quality time stumbling around in the nearest creek. It all starts there, particularly the give-a-damn bit, which is hands down the most important part.

  3. Jerry

    Eric and others — the suggestion about spending some time at or on the river is on point. Many of us water wonks got into this silliness simply because of a love of free flowing rivers and a belief that they are truly the lifeblood of a healthy ecosystem. And that it would be nice to leave a few special places for our grandchildren.

    Our wonderful, but anonymous, host on this fun (and very insightful) blog has recently pointed out that Messrs. Nunes and McClintock have a very different view of the world.

  4. onthepublicrecord

    I spent a summer doing irrigation system evaluations on-farm. I’ve never learned more.

  5. thegradstudent

    Thank you! What a great list. I think I’ve covered about half of these, but I’ve got the other half to go. Really excited about “The King of California” and the info on water districts. Any tips on getting a handle on water rights? I’ve spent some time trying to find out who’s contracted what, but the process seems pretty opaque to me. Thanks, again!

    P.S. I’ve been trying to get my hands on a copy of the Water Atlas for a little while…but it seems they’re few and far between. Glad for David Rumsey!

  6. Philip

    In addition to Aquafornia, the written materials provided by the WEF are excellent. Their tours of various water battlegrounds are superb. Very few people in the water world have studied the history of California between the Gold Rush and World War I. A better political and cultural understanding of that time is essential to understanding the public policies we now shake our heads at. “Men to Match My Mountains” is still a highly readable account of the settling of the Western Slope. Kevin Starr’s books are far more authoritative, but focused more on California.
    “Flooding the Courtrooms” by M. Catherine Miller is a clearly written legal history which a layperson can easily digest. It is carefully foot noted with citations of cases many modern attorneys have never heard of. “Industrial Cowboys” by David Igler also provides a lot of well-researched background materia, and provides insight on how California agriculture became a business wrapped around a craft, instead of the other way around. But one needs to read a more general history before getting mired in these last two.

  7. onthepublicrecord

    Great, thank you. I’ll read those books myself.

  8. Philip

    Miller: ISBN 0-8032-3153-9
    Igler: ISBN 0-52022658-5

  9. onthepublicrecord

    Already requested from my library. I love Link+ (which lets me get books from university libraries) with a deep and fervent love.

  10. Anonymous

    As a fellow bureaucrat who was new to California water not so long ago (and still feels lost most of the time), I can recommend a couple of items.
    First, the California Legislative Analyst’s Office has several good reports including:
    California’s Water: An LAO Primer (2008):
    Second, the Congressional Research Service has two reports (at least) worth reading:
    California Water Law and Related Legal Authority Affecting the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta
    California Drought: Hydrological and Regulatory Water Supply Issues
    Third, there is a very good book for Cal water newbies:
    Introduction to Water in California by David Carle
    Finally, a book on the Klamath. Also a good intro/case study on how western water law relates Native American tribes:
    Doremus and Turlock. Water War in the Klamath Basin

  11. It’s a bit dated, but the historical stuff on the engineering/legislative/policy aspects of water (mostly from the federal side) in Worster’s “Rivers of Empire” are just as essential as Cadillac Desert. If you haven’t read it already, you really must.

  12. DeltaRose

    WOW! Thanks for all the reading suggestions! I’ve read some but look forward to adding to my personal library.

  13. freight train

    Let me second the recommendation for “Introduction to Water In California.” This book is probably only useful for complete beginners (such as me); but it’s really, really useful for complete beginners. I read it a few months ago, and suddenly everything made sense! Of course those are the different California drainage areas! Ah, that’s where the Central Valley Project moves water from and to! And so on. Really good for giving a civilian the premises behind all the discussions.