Water districts are incapable of anti-growth decisions.

WHEREAS water districts were created to deliver water for economic growth. That mission makes them unable to do the tasks of this century, which are to wisely manage contraction and risk;

WHEREAS water districts are too close to their constituents to make difficult costly decisions that counter denial and wishful thinking that the status quo is the default;

I am always bewildered by the rightwing trope that government is ineffective. Water districts were a form of government created to turn rivers into cities and farms and holy crap did they do that.  They’re still, relentlessly, doing that. Water districts are good at going along with human denial, and human insistence that the do-nothing option will continue to provide the status quo. I argue that 1. they are not capable of doing anything that counters human denial as described, and that 2. the work we face for the next many decades is not delivering economic growth, but making painful, expensive decisions to minimize loss.

I see two reasons that water districts will not be able to do the work of contraction. The first is that contraction isn’t their self-identity and they don’t want to. I mean, just look at the SJV Water Blueprint. Faced with the end of a 3-4MAF annual overdraft, rather than live within their means, the water district solution is to raise a million dollars to advocate for a ludicrously expensive plan to backfill the loss.

The second reason that water districts cannot run counter to human denial is that the directors will get recalled. Mark Arax writes about how the Paradise was never able to do effective planning.

Paradise wanted to steer its own fate, the Qualified Five were nervous about the prospect that the town’s first General Plan would bring new bureaucrats, new regulations, new taxes, and maybe even a sewer system to the ridge. Years of ugly recall elections, recalls all the way down to the Irrigation District Board, followed. Those who wanted no government feuded with those who wanted some and those who wanted more.

Most people want their district to tell them that they can keep what they have, at about the same cost. They will not pay to fix problems that they cannot see, nor to prevent predicted problems because it is human nature to believe that doing nothing will lead to more of the status quo. Board members who try to work against this denial get recalled and the effort fails. Small districts are especially vulnerable because the thresholds for recall are low.

This has more-or-less worked for the last several decades because our former climate was stable and districts only ever made one of two decisions (‘do our rates cover O&M?’ and ‘is it time for an expansion?’). Frankly, the extent of deferred maintenance says that they didn’t even make the first decision correctly. But those are the questions that districts will be facing now. Water districts in their current structure are not capable of making the decisions that we now face.



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4 responses to “Water districts are incapable of anti-growth decisions.

  1. Water districts plan for shortages and varying water supplies as part of their normal operations. Water districts even promote resilience in supply portfolios through demand reduction, and have done so in a coordinated statewide effort since the creation of the Urban Water Conservation Council in 1991. Unlike the public goods charge in the electricity sector – which required an act of the state legislature to create, and is so often cited as a model by some parties in the water world – the CUWCC was created by collaboration among local water districts.

    Water districts also collaborate to develop facilities to make use of water resources that reduce the need for diversions from the state’s rivers, such as water recycling facilities developed by wastewater and water supply agencies in all parts of the state. In the Sacramento region, my water district and neighboring water districts have been working together to build and operate conjunctive use facilities, to adapt to changing hydrology – to store water in the ground during periods of high runoff, to be used during dry periods when we would reduce diversions from rivers. Unfortunately, we were prevented from using these facilities to respond to the drought in 2015 by the State Water Resources Control Board, but we expect that such policies will be avoided in the future.

    The Bureau of Reclamation and a consortium of local water agencies in the Sacramento region have also been analyzing the impact of climate change on water resources in our region, and developing strategies to adapt – which include ensuring that our local aquatic ecosystems are protected. We have also come together to propose a Voluntary Agreement (much criticized by you) that would reduce supplies available to residents and businesses and dedicate them to fisheries needs.

    These are all decisions that local water agencies have taken to reduce municipal demands on the state’s rivers. They appear to me to be decisions that are “anti” the “growth” of demands on the state’s rivers.

    • onthepublicrecord

      Water conservation/demand reduction isn’t an anti-growth decision. It is scrounging for new water, by trying to keep your low-entropy water from becoming high entropy water.


    • Your blog post appeared to be about “denial” and “contraction”, which were not well-defined nor necessarily intuitive. I took your terms to mean that you were concerned about the increasing volatility in precipitation in California, and the likelihood that more will come as rain, rather than as snow, thus necessitating planning for deeper and potentially longer droughts. Thus, we would need to plan for the “contraction” in dry year supplies, and you were admonishing those who are in “denial” that such conditions will be in our future. My points were that water agencies are, in fact, planning for the “contraction” of the availability of surface water supplies in drought years, and are taking action to “contract” their demands on rivers in those periods. This includes even making the “painful” (and economically costly) decisions to minimize the loss of water supplies.

      If you are asserting that “contraction” will be associated with economic growth or perhaps even more fundamentally with total population, I would say that population still appears to be rising in California and will likely continue to do so for the typical planning horizon (20-30 years). If population does start to drop (as has happened in Detroit and New Orleans), water agencies have those examples to draw from. More likely is an economic downturn, and I would argue that every water agency in California has weathered the dot.com bust and then the Great Recession, and has those experiences as a foundation from which to prepare for future downturns. You do provide a valuable admonition to my colleagues and me to always be vigilant in planning for such circumstances, so thank you for that.

  2. nil

    Every year the local water agency (probably one with mostly- or even all- imported supply) has a big marketing push for conservation.
    People grouse and tear up lawn and buy smart timers and continue shutting off the faucet while brushing (seriously, why is that still the number one tip, as if we all havent been hearing that shit for 40 years already).

    And developers continue terracing hills for cornmaze neighborhoods of curvy streets and clay tile roofs.

    It really is that simple Paul. We are asked to conserve not because there is a chance we might run out of water, but because they might have to stop building stucco shacks.

    What percentage of elected water board directors are developers, realtors, or lawyers?