Back to California – June 2016

In August 2015, during the height of its historic drought, I took a self-guided tour of California’s San Francisco – Delta – Sacramento – lower San Joaquin Valley region, with a hope of understanding California water management and learning lessons that might be applied to Wisconsin.

My learning was wonderfully facilitated by the kindness of experts in state agencies, NGOs, and the University of California.

They showed me, for instance, how the islands of agricultural lands carved from Delta wetlands by levees are now slowly disappearing below sea level, their temporary existence being maintained only by infusions of public funds that delay their demise. I saw the immense machinery that moves water uphill from the San Francisco Delta at a huge cost of subsidies, energy, and greenhouse gas emissions. I learned about the plight of California fishes, 80% of them extinct, threatened, or awaiting possible endangered species act listing. And much, much more.

The San Joaquin River Delta. (Photo credit: Edward Burtynsky,

But still the understanding I gained barely scratched the surface of California water management. It seemed so ultimately unviable from a long term sustainability and expense view; I had to wonder, am I just naive, or is this whole thing nuts? My expert friends assured me, “This IS nuts!”. Here’s the take of one authority:

“California’s water system might have been invented by a Soviet bureaucrat on an LSD trip.” – Peter Passell, 1991

How did California, and much of the west, get into this situation?

Marc Risner’s Cadillac Desert, written in 1986 and revised in 1993, is still the most highly recommended text for understanding western water development. Risner harshly describes water development in the west largely as a collusion of out-of-control federal bureaucracies, pork barrel politicIans, and the rich wanting to become richer through large scale water projects financed on the public dime. Projects, he says, justified as helping “the family farmer,” often benefitted large landowners and developers to the detriment of family farmers, not to mention to fish, wildlife, fishermen, salmon processors, and Native Americans.


So here in June 2016 I return to California. Prior to giving a presentation in San Francisco next week, I’ll first tour the upper San Joaquin Valley to look at a rewatering of River that will allow salmon to spawn and save key runs from extinction. The rewatering will allow a trickle of the river’s natural flow (18-20%) to pass for the benefit of salmon. After that, it’s up to the Owens Valley, where Los Angeles hoodwinked local farmers out of their water in the early 1900s, inspiring Roman Polanski’s 1974 film, Chinatown, starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. That diversion dried Owens Lake, a former major stopover for waterfowl, and in the process created the largest source of dust pollution in the US in the former lakebed.

All the while, I’ll be thinking about what this means for Wisconsin as we intensify the demands and development on our water resources.

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