Our response to California’s drought shows America at work to enrich the 1%

Summary: The California megadrought shows America’s public policy machinery at work. Dysfunctional for us; highly functional for the 1%. It’s the price we pay for our apathy and passivity. Today we review California’s latest response to this crisis.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

California drought


  1. Summary
  2. How Growers Gamed California’s Drough
  3. “California Goes Nuts”
  4. Apocalyptic Schadenfreude
  5. Updates
  6. For More Information

(1)  Summary

Here’s the tale in brief, told by journalist Mark Hertsgaard in “After Warmest Winter, Drought-Stricken California Limits Water But Exempts Thirstiest Big Growers“:

There are a lot of Californians who are suffering right now, especially farm workers. There are communities out in Central Valley, the poor communities where a lot of farm workers live, that literally don’t have water coming out of their household taps anymore. That is not the case for Mr. Stewart Reznick {billionaire} and a lot of bigger farmers. In fact, my story in The Daily Beast started with a conference that Mr. Reznick and his pistachio company, Paramount Farms, held just last month, where they bragged, literally bragged and celebrated about the record profits that they are making on pistachios, on almonds, and not only the profits, but the record production levels, and the record acreage levels, which means that as the state has been going into drought, nevertheless agricultural interests are planting more and more acreage, new almond trees — we are growing alfalfa here which is a very thirsty crop and gets exported over to China.

There are all kinds of examples of this. But, the pain is not being felt equally here. The growers at that conference, they literally trooped out of that conference listening to Louis Armstrong saying “it’s a wonderful world,” and I think the mood was captured by one grower who said, “I’ve been smiling all the way to the bank,” and they played a clip from that Tom Cruise movie, “Jerry Maguire” where Cruise yells out “show me the money.” Well, they are making plenty of money, some of the big farmers here, and that’s largely because they are still getting plenty of water, and, as I say, the experts say that this water is underpriced. If that if we did price it properly, which means a little bit higher, that there is enormous strides that California could be taking with water efficiency.


We literally could, essentially, wipe out the effects of the drought in California — 22% decrease in water consumption in the agricultural areas, which would be roughly the equivalent of the amount of surface water that the farmers did not have last year because of the drought. So, there is a lot that can be technologically, but until you get the pricing right, and the political economy of this straight, we are not going to see those things.

(2)  “How Growers Gamed California’s Drought”

Hertsgaard explains in a Daily Beast article “How Growers Gamed California’s Drought” — “Consuming 80% of California’s developed water but accounting for only 2% of the state’s GDP, agriculture thrives while everyone else is parched.”

{A}griculture consumes a staggering 80% of California’s developed water, even as it accounts for only 2% of the state’s gross domestic product. Most crops and livestock are produced in the Central Valley, which is, geologically speaking, a desert. The soil is very fertile but crops there can thrive only if massive amounts of irrigation water are applied. Although no secret, agriculture’s 80% share of state water use is rarely mentioned in media discussions of California’s drought. Instead, news coverage concentrates on the drought’s implications for people in cities and suburbs, which is where most journalists and their audiences live.

… The other great unmentionable of California’s water crisis is that water is still priced more cheaply than it should be, which encourages over-consumption. … One reason is that much of the state’s water is provided by federal and state agencies at prices that taxpayers subsidize.

A second factor that encourages waste is the “use it or lose it” feature in California’s arcane system of water rights. Under current rules, if a property owner does not use all the water to which he is legally entitled, he relinquishes his future rights to the unused water, which may then get allocated to the next farmer in line.

Lawmakers have begun, gingerly, to reform the water system, but experts say that much remains to be done. For years, California was the only state in the arid West that set no limits on how much groundwater a property owner could extract from a private well. Thus nearly everyone and their neighbors in the Central Valley have been drilling deeper and deeper wells in recent years, seeking to offset reductions in state and federal water deliveries. This agricultural version of an arms race not only favors big corporate enterprises over smaller farmers, it threatens to collapse the aquifers whose groundwater is keeping California alive during this drought and will be needed to endure future droughts. (Groundwater supplies about 40% of the state’s water in years of normal precipitation but closer to 60% in dry years.)

Last fall, the legislature passed and Governor Brown signed a bill to regulate groundwater extraction. But the political touchiness of the issue — agricultural interests lobbied hard against it — resulted in a leisurely implementation timetable. Although communities must complete plans for sustainable water management by 2020, not until 2040 must sustainability actually be achieved. The Central Valley could be a dust bowl by then under current trends.

There are practical solutions to California’s drought, but the lack of realistic water prices and other incentives has slowed their adoption. … Meanwhile, underpriced water has enabled continued production of such water-intensive crops as alfalfa, much of which is exported to China. Rice, perhaps the thirstiest of major crops, saw its production area decrease by 25% in 2014. But pasture grass, which is used to fatten livestock, and many nut and fruit products have seen their acreage actually increase. Resnick told the Paramount Farms conference that the acreage devoted to pistachios had grown by 118%  over the last 10 years; for almonds and walnuts the growth rates were 47 and 30%, respectively.

One striking aspect of California’s water emergency is how few voices in positions of authority have been willing to state the obvious. … The price of water, however, is not determined by inalterable market forces; it is primarily a function of government policies and the social forces that shape them. Elected officials may dodge the question for now, but the price of water seems destined to become an unavoidable issue in California politics.

Pray for Rain
Not an effective response — in Turlock, CA. By Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

(3)  “California Goes Nuts”

For more details about this madness see “California Goes Nuts” by Tom Philpott at Mother Jones. It has some fascinating information.

It takes a gallon of water to produce a single almond — more than three times the amount required for a grape and two and a half times as much for a strawberry. … In all of the other water-scarce states in the West, authorities restrict how much water a user can pump out of the ground. But in California, landowners can drop a well wherever they want, unimpeded by the state. Some counties require permits for wells (though they’re usually easy to get), and in a few Central Valley watersheds, things have gotten so contentious that courts have stepped in to limit water pumping. But mostly, California groundwater is yours for the taking. As the State Water Resources Control Board puts it on its website, “To get a right to groundwater, you simply extract the water and use it for a beneficial purpose.”

Philpott then describes the corrupt political processes that allow rich farmers to loot California’s natural resources. As with previous such booms, at the end they’ll flee with their swag — leaving desolation behind. For more about the situation and Governor Brown’s policy response see this article at VOX and this at the New York Times.

(4)  Apocalyptic Schadenfreude

To see the broad context see “Apocalyptic Schadenfreude“, Steven Johnson, Medium, 7 April 2015 — “What the New York Times  and everybody else  gets wrong about California’s water crisis”. Excerpt:

… even if this drought is a sign of climates to come, California has plenty of water to support its lifestyle. It just won’t have enough to support its crops, without significant changes to make those farms more water-efficient. It seems bizarre that a region like the Central Valley with just six million people — barely more than 10% of the state’s population — should use so much of the water. But then you realize that the vast majority of people benefiting from that water don’t live in California at all. The Central Valley takes up only 1% of the landmass of the United States, but it produces 25% of the food we eat, and almost half of the fruits or nuts we consume. California is running through its water supply because, for complicated historical and climatological reasons, it has taken on the burden of feeding the rest of the country.

Johnson doesn’t mention that California — with its expensive water provided cheaply by the government — has driven farmers in other regions out of business. Much of the Northeast’s farmland has reverted to forest.

(4)  Updates

California’s Snowpack Is Now Zero Percent of Normal” by Eric Holthaus at Slate. Good data. It’s Slate so concludes with unjustified alarmism: “Welcome to climate change, everyone.”

(5)  For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about our conflict with Iran. Of special interest are these about droughts:

  1. Droughts are coming. Are we ready for the past to repeat?
  2. Everything you want to know about California’s drought (except when it will end).
  3. Key facts about the drought that’s reshaping California.

21 thoughts on “Our response to California’s drought shows America at work to enrich the 1%”

  1. Fascinating article, thank you.
    Once again it is not a case of the ‘problem’, but the moral and ethical dilemma that faces a country without an accountable spirit. Whether it is the 1% taking the wealth of the country or the militaristic congressional industrial complex perverting the economy or the party partisan congress… Until you can actually address the spirit of decay that lies at the heart this it is a case of throwing dust up in the air.

    1. 7zander,

      You go to the heart of the problem, which is as usual “why” — the most difficult of questions.

      In the gilded age Americans fought back — unionists, suffragettes, progressive technocrats, etc. And eventually won.

      In our gilded age we watch tv, the outer party reads political websites for entertainment, and whines. Apathy and passivity. What is the core problem? Can it be fixed without deeper diagnosis?

      These questions are, I suspect, over my pay grade.

  2. I am inclined to say that the answer is revolution. The 99% have been shown the way in the American, French and lately in the Ukrainian revolutions but that requires a level of belief equal to the sacrifice of life and wealth that are required. Sad to say that this belief is not there anymore.
    Moral and ethical degeneracy has left a people that believe in nothing and no one.
    As a non American I weep for you going through the farce of an election every four or five years. At least in Africa we know that we have got.

    1. 7zander,

      I don’t understand how revolution can be an “answer” for a people too apathetic to work the existing machinery of self-government. Revolution is several orders of magnitude more difficult and risky.

      That is like telling a person confined to a wheelchair that the cure is to run a marathon.

      1. To use your analogy I would say that the person in the wheelchair is too lazy to get up and to apathetic to move. You are right, revolution is beyond their thinking.
        What disturbs me further is that in order to summon the indignation and anger for revolution requires a measure of moral empathy with their plight. Given that the shoe was on the other foot and they were the millionaire landowner; would they give a shit for the taxpayer who is paying for the water and being diddled by the rich? I think that they would be doing exactly the same thing…

      2. 7zander,

        I agree on all counts (you gave a better analogy than mine). Hence my conclusion that only arousing anger will get us moving. Anger at our situation. Anger at what we’ve become. I don’t know if that’s a good idea (possible? effective?); it’s just the best (i.e., only) idea I have.

        “An experience of profound contempt is necessary in order to grasp our situation, and our capacity for contempt is vanishing.”
        — Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, chapter “Values” (1987).

      3. 7zander,

        “Given that the shoe was on the other foot and they were the millionaire landowner; would they give a shit for the taxpayer who is paying for the water and being diddled by the rich? I think that they would be doing exactly the same thing…”

        That’s spot on: “Winning the lottery makes you more conservative, study finds“, The Guardian, 5 February 2015 — “A sudden windfall makes people less compassionate and 18% of winners immediately switched support to conservatives.”

  3. I think the problem presented here represents a great reason for the current divide in politics and why it is so useless to us.

    Conservatives point out correctly that it is government mismanagement that is causing this crisis in the water situation.
    Democrats point out correctly that only additional oversight and management can resolve this problem.

    But how do you convince someone that the institution that is a large part of the problem can be the solution? America doesn’t understand how it can be made into the solution. I believe it clearly sees it as a problem, but the only answer in the political imagination now is to reduce the problem.

    1. PF Khan,

      I think you’re describing it in a needlessly complicated fashion. Government is in effect a machine for running a nation. If we make the effort to run the self-government machinery the Founders built, then it will run in our benefit. But the State will be governed. If not by us, then by the 1% — who will, naturally, run it in their interest.

    2. Fabius Maximus,

      I’m surprised you see it as complicating things, to my mind what I said was an oversimplification. I agree with what you’re saying, but I don’t think that the popular or mainstream perception of the government is that of the “machine for running a nation.”

      The proles more or less see the government as an inevitability, not as a tool. It is not for them but is and has to be.

      For the more educated, disillusionment with operating the levers of power is pretty total in popular culture. Exercising power is seen as a dirty activity, one that will debase all equally, so the idea that we should govern instead of the 1% will be met with quotes from Animal Farm and historical accounts of how revolutions and changes in who runs things never changes anything for the people at the bottom and is therefore a waste of time. Occupy Wall Street suffered greatly from this and was so much focused with reinventing how to utilize power it neglected to realize that it hadn’t seized any.

      All of this is merely to say that I think that this sort of problem is a huge challenge to America because our popular, readily activated solutions will not work here. The machinery for governing the nation is setup to favor the rich and leave the poor/middle holding the bag. Our politicians either offer to shut down more of the machinery in the hopes that the rich don’t exploit this even more than the current problem, or they request more power without first being governed by the people. Neither solution will help the people.

      If the first comes to past, it seems likely that the rich will be even more advantaged by the fact that they are the only ones with resources and can bully those without them. In the second, the concentration of additional powers without responsibility and accountability for our government better in place will also be met with the rich using their better resources to cheat and corrupt.

      But you can’t get elected in America saying “this is hard and everyone needs to be a part of the solution for it to work” when your opponent can claim “it’s easy and I’ll do it for free!” and everyone will forget when the opponent fails and it costs more and they are shown to be liars.

      1. PF Khan,

        Perhaps so. I actually disagree with most of your points. What is your factual basis for these beliefs?

        This is the problem with our situation: people describe it using their imagination rather than building on a solid foundation of data. That’s not helpful, and produces high odds erroneous descriptions and hence recommendations.

        That’s why I prefer to stick with a narrow range of observations and conclusions, and label things beyond that as speculation.

    3. Fabius Maximus,

      I suppose I rely on popular shows and blogs and news sources to prove what popular culture thinks of the world. That and conversations with the people in my life.

      Let me be clear that I think popular culture is wrong here and not in line with the truth often but it does seem to me to be what I’ve written it is.

      Perhaps I could better understand if you’d elaborate at least one disagreement.

      PF Khans

      1. PF Khan,

        Clarification: The question is why we’re not working the Republic’s machinery to the extent we did in the past (that’s a vital point, the comparison should not be vs Heaven or a Platonic ideal). Political activity is not just voting, but organizing to have political impact (e.g., unions).

        What is the evidence for these statements, esp in the sense that these attitudes have changed? Looking out the window and feeling is not, imo, evidence. We have a massive base of evidence in public opinion polls, social science surveys, along history of people’s actions, etc.

        “The proles more or less see the government as an inevitability, not as a tool. It is not for them but is and has to be.”

        “For the more educated, disillusionment with operating the levers of power is pretty total in popular culture. Exercising power is seen as a dirty activity, one that will debase all equally”

    4. Fabius Maximus,

      I don’t think I’ll be able to answer your question satisfactorily, but then again, no one else is really able to come up with a reasonable answer.

      But here it goes:
      People are poorer below the upper class now than the used to be.
      Poorer Americans are consistently taking multiple, different jobs with fewer benefits working just under full time hours.
      More people than ever are living alone/separately raising kids, which changes the way we interact with one another in a profound way.
      Stressed out and worried people are not thinking about political issues of the group or thinking long term.
      Add to that people are spending more time on things of minimal social utility because it’s fun.
      And then lastly, you can look at the media people watch about government.

      These things add up to a population that, when they think about the world and government are going to think it’s right by its being what it is. There’s no reason for them to think of changing it, they can’t even change their own small lives. They are reasonably content enjoying, what is a pretty idle life that doesn’t require a ton of extra effort or energy.

      For the educated, I think that you see it in this way:
      Finance and technology are bigger pulls on the imagination of the educated than public service
      Politics, in popular culture, is about being a manipulative narcissistic charlatan
      Politics, as currently practiced, seems to be obsessed with the moral high ground and who’s the bigger victim (although they are related); this is not meant to encourage participation but discourage opposition
      Political winners hardly seem more powerful than political losers, so what’s it matter anyways who wins or loses?
      This is a stretch, but I assume that given the ability of political losers to consistently get on air and say their piece with immunity from their loss or their discrediting in the political process ends up limiting the appearance of power. I think that this is more atmospheric, but you see it with the Republicans shutting down the government while in a minority position in government more or less.

      This + the similar economic pressures (http://www.economist.com/news/christmas-specials/21636612-time-poverty-problem-partly-perception-and-partly-distribution-why) and coming economic distruptions adds up to a population that, while educated on the fact that their political machinery is failing and continues to fail is unconvinced that politics can solve our problems. It’s not worth the energy.

      This will change when things get bad enough, and people need another answer.
      PF Khans

      1. PF Khan,

        That’s a grab bag of things, most of which are not pertinent to the 2 assertions of yours that I cited. For example, which one shows “exercising power is seen as a dirty activity, one that will debase all equally”?

    5. Fabius Maximus,

      The part starting with “For the educated,” is where I tried to establish my case for this position.

      My first link was to identify the fact that there is significant pull other than government, other than service on the ambitious educated individuals.
      I cite some popular culture figures who are in power who are singularly terrible people but who command considerable fan affection. People feel affinity for these figures and they have a following that suggests that at least in the popular imagination, our leaders are amoral assholes. When you also consider that the political news that is usually on the front page is scandalous, this, to me, is suggestive a popular culture conception of the narcissistic politician is more universal than not.
      I linked the articles about police and the Indiana religious law as evidence about the way in which we now practice effective politics. In both cases, political groups took advantage of small infractions and turned them into extremely large bursts of moral outrage. They both were actually small infractions of the group’s moral domain but were elevated to mortal sin level and turned what could have been a civil discussion on the validity of the position of religion in society or the right place that police should occupy in our society. Instead we got lots of blowhards shouting each other down. One group threatens to burn down the pizzeria, the other donates $800,000 to support their member.
      And the final link is like I said sort of a stretch, but there’s plenty of evidence that you don’t need to win elections to hold sway in our media. Why is John Bolton saying anything in public? His only qualifications seem to be a willingness to do or say anything to get another war started.

      These atmospherics are suggestive of an overall climate that is hostile to idealism (something that used to exist in our politics) and participation. Additionally, there are few career opportunities to entice the overly ambitious.

      Then finally for good measure, the results of the Occupy Wall Street group speaks highly to a revolutionary group that explicitly wanted to avoid the unrevolutionary act of governing. http://www.thebaffler.com/salvos/to-the-precinct-station
      This link displays some evidence that this was the case and part of why Occupy failed to achieve much.

      Hope that clarifies my thoughts.

      PF Khans

  4. If the California State Legislature decides to limit water use by California farms, either by regulation or by prices, then a court of law might possibly consider it a ‘legal taking’ warranting just compensation, possibly in the billions of dollars.
    It has some precedent, for example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lingle_v._Chevron_U.S.A._Inc.
    I wonder if we may end up paying off the farmers so they stop wasting water.

    1. Todd,

      I am certain that the eventual resolution will be paying off farmers for their water rights. A rough analogy might be how many nations ended slavery (e.g. Britain) by paying compensation.

      However, two of the main sources of water probably don’t need compensation: the cheap water lifted over the mountains, and taping groundwater.

    2. “… paying off farmers for their water rights.”
      I think would probably be the most effective course of action, and I’d like to see it sooner than later, but I also think such a payout could be generally perceived as rewarding bad behavior, which would make it less politically palatable. On the other hand, if “the 1%” sees a good value proposition in being paid to save water, then they might help to make it happen.

      Interesting comparison to slavery in Britain. Wikipedia says the compensation to former salve-owners amounted to 40% of the government’s total annual expenditure. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery_Abolition_Act_1833

      1. Todd,

        I understand your point, but I doubt that there is an alternative. Again, note that massive restructuring can be forced by rational reform of subsidized water to farmers and restrictions on their use of groundwater.

  5. Pingback: Lessons learned from the end of California’s “permanent drought” | Watts Up With That?

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