Too Many People, Not Enough Water

California U. S. Representative Tom McClintock complains about water releases from California reservoirs:

One of the worst droughts in California’s history has devastated more than a half-million acres of the most fertile farmland in America. In communities like Sacramento, “water police” go from door to door to enforce conservation measures. There’s even a mobile “app” to report neighbors to city authorities so they can be fined for wasting water.

With the Sierra snowpack at 4% of normal as of May 20, Californians will desperately need what little water remains behind its dams this summer. Authorities have warned some towns like Folsom—home of Folsom Lake—to expect daily rationing of 50 gallons per person, a 60% cut from average household usage.

Yet last month the Bureau of Reclamation drained Folsom and other reservoirs on the American and Stanislaus rivers of more than 70,000 acre feet of water—enough to meet the annual needs of a city of half a million people—for the comfort and convenience of fish.

This has always been the paradox of California. California doesn’t have enough native supplies of water to support a large population. Ultimately, California will need to choose among agriculture, the environment, and the large population. I think that subsidizing agriculture and preserving the environment should be the priorities rather than subsidizing a population larger than the land’s ability to support but, then, I don’t live in California.

13 comments… add one
  • michael reynolds

    I think that’s exactly backward. 10% of our water goes to do one thing: grow almonds in the middle of a desert. It’s very wasteful – a lot of California agriculture is. In a good year the almond crop is worth 4 billion, round numbers. The state’s GDP is two trillion. So we’re using one tenth of our water to produce .002 of our GDP. Taking agriculture overall, we bring in about 40 billion a year – again, not a huge contributor to that 2 trillion number, less than half of what tourism takes in and about a tenth of what manufacturing produces.

    As a simple economic proposition it makes more sense to keep the swimming pools in Silicon Valley, Beverly Hills and Disneyland filled. Agriculture is important but spraying water onto fields baking in 120 degree heat to grow nuts is nuts. Putting that ahead of household use makes no sense.

  • Of course you do, Michael. Your vision of California is of a sort of large, gated community.

    People need food and jobs. Food means agriculture and jobs means industry. There are a thousand places in the U. S. (and beyond) to which Silicon Valley can be relocated, something that is already happening. They aren’t making any new Imperial Valleys.

    What you’re describing is an artifact, the result of policy and it’s not a policy which is remotely sustainable. California’s population is only growing by virtue of immigration, mostly illegal. Domestic out-migration now exceeds domestic in-migration.

  • PD Shaw

    Its not just water issues, its air pollution trapped by the mountains. Despite having the strictest air quality standards in the country, their cities by far have the worst air quality in the country.

    Population + Geography + (lesser extent) Chinese transport

  • Ben Wolf


    I don’t think Michael is making an argument for elites over the poor, only that attempting to hold the line on wasteful agriculture is ultimately a losing battle. California will only get drier in the long run.

  • California has plenty of water for agriculture. It just doesn’t have plenty of water for agriculture and 38 million people. Michael’s preference is continuing the trend of the last 70 years: more peoplel, continuing the Ponzi scheme California has been running for four generations. I don’t think the land has that kind of carrying capacity.

    California is losing its middle class. The people who are remaining there are the padrones and the peones. Whether he intends to or not, that’s the California he’s arguing for.

  • PD Shaw

    I want to say just one word to you. Just one word:


    There’s a great future in stillsuits. Not just for personal use. But the unemployed can wear them to sell extra water to the beautiful people. If we need more water, we just ship in more people. Do brown people sweat more than white people or do yellow people? Thin people or fat people? Never mind, just think of the opportunities at the ground floor for a clever person like yourself to reach out and seize the opportunity.

  • Oddly enough, I read Dune in serialization. I still have the magazines in storage. I immediately recognized it as a science fictionized adaptation of the life of Mohammed which most don’t seem to realize.

  • Ben Wolf

    PD, that’s the best idea I’ve heard all day.


    Or almonds, as Michael points out, could be grown in a climate suited to them. There’s a tremendous amount of water inefficiency in agriculture because of sheer human arrogance in thinking the environment could be altered to our tastes with no consequences from externalities like insufficient rainfall and the cultivation of land with little topsoil. Climate zoning for agriculture is a more logical step than crops in the desert.

  • I’m assuming that Michael is using almonds as a synecdoche for agriculture in the Imperial Valley.

    As to your suggestion, I don’t know how to respond to it. If we limited agriculture to zones suitable for it we’d have no agriculture at all. Agriculture means growing crops in greater quantities than they’d grow natively by tilling, irrigation, fertilization, etc.

    Even viniculture in northern California is only possible with irrigation.

    Manufacturing accounts for about 10% of California employment. Farms employ more people in California than the tech sector.

    This is a basic problem for California. Government and stuff that government pays for account for 30% of California GDP and are the largest employers. There’s no way that can work out. It’s the Cat and Rat Farm. California needs more basic production, not less.

  • I want to agree with Dave, here, but I tend towards Michael’s point of view.

    There is a difference between irrigation and diverting water that is scarce and much-needed elsewhere. Particularly to the human capital regions.

    The only way to try to vacate California is going to involve turning the screws on cost-of-living (specifically water) which is going to hit the non-wealthy the hardest, exacerbating the padrones/peones issue and further pushing the middle and upper-middle class to Washington, Oregon, and the Heartland.

  • michael reynolds


    Imperial Valley doesn’t create jobs in coastal California. These are two entirely different worlds. The only time most Californians even notice the valley is when they make the mistake of driving the 5 north or south.

    California agriculture employs about 3% of our workers. As a simple economic proposition it’s silly to cry, “Save the 3% by killing the 97%!” The valley doesn’t keep California afloat, it barely pays its way. You don’t strangle the two trillion dollar economy for the benefit of the 40 billion dollar economy.

    Personally, I’m all for doing what we can to keep the 5 corridor alive – we’re building a ridiculous train system that as far as I can tell will be make-work jobs to create a system allowing farm workers to travel from Bakersfield to Merced. (Believe me, no one else is going to Merced.) But killing the state economy for the benefit of workers who, to a rather large degree, aren’t even US citizens is a non-starter.

    Let’s build a pipeline from Washington State, those people are neck-deep in water. It actually rains more than 365 days a year in Seattle. (It’s a mystery.) We’ll get jobs and water.

  • mike shupp

    Between overuse and reduced rainfall due to global warming, we’re apt to deplete much of the Ogallala and other aquifers in this century. It’s going to take a long long time to fill them up again, and that’s going to reduce the agricultural yield of the central and western regions of the US.

    I.e., we’re going to need California agriculture. And also, there isn’t much prospect of reducing California population levels. I suspect the state’s “natural” ecology is going to take a few hits in the coming years. There are going to be more Central Aquiducts; there is going to be more government intrusion into water usage, and probably some heavy-handed political meddling.

  • Tim

    It’s easy to say ‘stop subsidizing agriculture,’ or ‘let’s just have an auction for water pricing,’ (which would result in more swimming pools and less food), but then you’re essentially choosing some kinds of government subsidies (30 year mortgages, interstate systems that allow for sprawling metropolises) over others (our ag policy and water rates).

    At the same time, I think we do need to take a look at water use by certain crops and ask ourselves whether say, we need to produce a majority of the world’s almonds in CA. (Yes, almonds can be used as a synecdoche but they’re also a real crop with real implications).

    More generally, I think we need to have government policy that encourages diversification of crops between regions even at the expense of lower peak harvests in some years; it’s just common sense to not put all our eggs in one basket.

    The price spike on limes earlier in the year due to weather conditions in Mexico put a strain on a great many jobs across the US (and the world) as Mexican restaurants, etc. weren’t able to easily reduce lime use or increase prices to compensate (no one wants a $20 margarita that used to be $8). Government incentives (via NAFTA) helped concentrate lime production in Mexico, and so they can also help foster a more geographically diverse agriculture.

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