Water Wars: Politics Prevent Comprehensive Water Policy

By Kacey Bills
DWR-California-Aqueduct-2

Source: The Department of Water Resources

“North and South, coast and valley, urban and rural, we are in this together, and we are going to have to pull together to overcome this drought.” – Governor Pete Wilson, 1991

This remark, made over twenty years ago by Governor Pete Wilson, is as relevant in 2014 as it was in 1991. Water policy remains entrenched in politics. These political schisms become even wider when there is a drought.

The current drought has sparked debates among competing groups. One such debate is between the GOP delegation in California andthe Governor’s office. A Republican sponsored House bill, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act, was declared “unwelcome and divisive” by Governor Jerry Brown. Republican Congressman Kevin McCarthy responded by declaring that the bill valued “families over fish.”[1] Central Valley farmers echoed this sentiment. Regions, counties, cities, and towns all have their own perspectives to add to the debate. Inland vs. Coastland, Famers vs. Environmentalists, Republicans vs. Democrats: These rivalries distract us from developing long-term and sustainable water policy.

Sustainable water policy is important because drought-induced crisis management solutions are incapable of being the comprehensive and collaborative policy that California desperately needs. State water agencies and lawmakers must be willing to work collectively and consistently to meet future challenges.

With a fragmented water management system of nearly 200 federal, state, and local agencies, competing interests are inevitable. Districts are determined by both political jurisdiction and resource area.[2] Siloed water management prevents coordination across jurisdictions that would improve water efficiency and supply.

Each agency sets its own priorities to improve water supply reliability in its jurisdiction. Dr. Peter Gleick, President of the Pacific Institute and a leading expert in water issues, testified before the California State Water Resources Control Board on February 26, 2014 to propose strategies to address the drought. One of Dr. Gleick’s recommendations was to determine a statewide strategy that can be used when determining policy at all levels. Dr. Gleick suggested water efficiency be the first target, followed by a focus on alternative resources, such as recycled water, and then traditional water supply options.[3] If agencies at all levels have the same tools for achieving a shared goal, the risk of division and competition is greatly reduced.

Water disagreements in California run deep. From 1907-1913, Owens Valley citizens repeatedly bombed portions of the aqueduct running from the Owens Lake to Los Angeles.[4] The 1974 film Chinatown fictionalized political events that resulted from the Owens Valley debacle. The film depicted the deceit and subterfuge that California water politics have become known for.[5] The actual events and their fictionalized portrayals have fueled partisan water politics over the past century. Water disputes have been fought for important reasons, but they have widened the schisms between key groups in water politics. This culture of rivalry has prevented us from creating strategies that ensure equal access to water.

Water supply and storage problems exist in California, and these have serious implications for people’s livelihoods and the economy. The belief that these problems cannot be solved collaboratively is false and misguided.

Changing the hostile water culture in California begins with all of us. We should be educated on our current water management system to avoid making sweeping generalizations about such a highly nuanced issue. The California Water Atlas has become an online interactive map that strives to make the water system understandable for everyone. We should pressure our lawmakers and representatives to be concerned with water policy at all times —not just when we are in a drought. Sustainable and holistic water policy can best be developed when crisis is not looming. Water policy has been developed in a reactive fashion for too long, and it is time for California to put some serious deliberation into the type of water management that can create a more efficient and stable water system.


[1] Brekke, Dan. (2014, February 4). House Panel Passes GOP “Drought Relief” Bill. KQED News. Retrieved March 8, 2014, from http://blogs.kqed.org/newsfix/2014/02/03/brown-blasts-gop-drought-bill-as-divisive
[2] California Water Foundation. (2012).  Retrieved March 9, 2014. Integrated Water Management is Critical to Addressing the Challenges to California’s Water Supply Reliability. Retrieved from http://californiawaterfoundation.org/uploads/1378923217-IWMFactSheet.pdf.
[3] Pacific Institute. (2014, February). Testimony of Dr. Peter Gleick, Pacific Institute to the California State Water Resources Control Board, on the California Drought. Retrieved from http://pacinst.org/news/peter-gleick-testifies-on-urban-water-use-efficiency/.
[4] Reisner, M. 1993. Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. New York: Penguin Books
[5] Stringfellow, Kim. (2012, October 24). Forget Chinatown, Get the Real Story of California’s Most Famous Water War. KCET News. Retrieved March 8, 2014 from http://www.kcet.org/arts/artbound/counties/los-angeles/los-angeles-aqueduct-there-it-is-take-it.html

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