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Overpopulation, Not Climate Change, Caused California’s Water Crisis

The state has grown massively since the 1950s, creating a serious irrigation challenge that green tut-tutting won't fix.
California drought

In 2014, headed towards a Palm Springs golf holiday at the height of a prolonged California drought, President Barack Obama stopped in Fresno on Air Force One with Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein aboard, joined by Governor Jerry Brown.

“Unless and until we do more to combat carbon pollution that causes climate change, this trend is going to get worse,” Obama professed after a motorcade to parched fields west of town. “We’re going to have to stop looking at these disasters as something to wait for. We’ve got to start looking at these disasters as something to prepare for, to anticipate.” The four politicians posed with tractors as props for camera crews, promised help, and then moved airborne to the next event, as farmers took more acreage out of crops. But the long drought was no disaster, just arid California doing its cyclical thing.

This summer, the great Sierra Nevada snowpack is melting, filling vast foothill reservoirs from Shasta to Tehachapi. After another rainy season, the third in a row, most are nearly full, refilling, cleaning, and flushing California’s natural and built water system statewide. This is very good news, especially the replenishment of good groundwater essential to its agriculture. Sound water regulation and allocation is a public imperative. Purity is not only of interest to tree huggers. Keeping wells flowing and groundwater clean have been challenges in California since pioneer days. A hundred years of meeting rising residential demand through colossal water projects and impressive engineering has allowed California to become the world destination and agricultural provider that it is.

Yet thanks to fright-mongering rhetoric like Obama’s, instead of useful debates over water management, apocalyptic premonitions of climate change have monopolized public sentiment. To be sure, humans have blown vast quantities of carbon into the atmosphere since the 18th century to create energy and mechanical power. Global population, meanwhile, has risen from 700 million to 7 billion. The probability of atmospheric disequilibrium is established and possibly vast.

But even if this is factored in, California’s rainfall is still extremely uneven. No responsible researcher has disputed that its many-year drought is derived mainly from natural climate variability. There are arguably too many people on the planet—not only in coastal California—all wanting food and water. Ginning up climate change hysteria with every drought, heat wave, and blizzard does not serve the public interest.

As reservoirs fill, demand for high-density housing in the 7 million-strong San Francisco Bay area and 20 million-strong Southern California metroplex is insistent, and compounded by intense, current political pressure to build low-cost and subsidized housing. The shortage of inexpensive housing falls heavily on young adults with few assets both in coastal and central California.

Sacramento River delta water remains in perpetual legal dispute. Farm water comprises an estimated 70 percent of annual state water use. Private water ownership and 1,300 competing irrigation districts complicate matters. (The financial stakes can be high. The vast JG Boswell cotton and tomato ranch, for example, owns billions of dollars of privately held water.) The federal government controls interstate water. Any mandate provokes political resistance, either from farmers in the field, environmentalists in court, or urban voters who hate restrictions, brown lawns, and paying high prices for water.

In February 2017, when the big Oroville reservoir dam spillway broke, partisan Republicans berated California’s Democratic establishment for not building enough dams, shorting water infrastructure, and allowing runoff into the Pacific Ocean. As if new dams and reservoirs could fix everything. California and the entire West is largely a done deal of pumps, siphons, aqueducts, and canals, with few new means of supply. Nature has its limits. Desalinization might provide boutique drinking water, but it’s not going to hydrate 40-plus million residents. Moreover, will it be 50 million? Sixty million? How many? Someone please ask Senator Kamala Harris for a projection. Soon.

The issue is population. California has grown from 10 million to at least 40 million since 1950, making it necessary to move water over long distances to where people live and work. Close to two thirds of the state’s population is bunched in a few water-dependent coastal counties. Only about 15 percent of California’s water consumption is residential. Most of that is used outdoors to make the desert bloom and hillside pools sparkle and shimmer David Hockney-like, and millions expect that water at will.

From rivers or aquifers, there’s potable water people drink and bathe in. Industrial water cools, cleans, and lubricates. Wastewater needs treatment. Both farm and non-farm water needs to be free of pesticides, fertilizer run-off, brine, and mineral salts. But how to do so and to what degree remain articles of wide disagreement, and as the Wall Street Journal recently illustrated, a problem elsewhere too, notably the Mississippi Valley.

Agriculture’s $40 billion contribution to the California economy is only about 3 percent of the state’s GDP. Rural California is still a potent voting bloc in the state legislature and the U.S. Congress, but less so every decade. During the extended drought, the growth of water-hungry crops like rice, cotton, and nuts came under criticism.

California’s specialty crops are not staples like soybeans and corn, which need less water and irrigation. From Red Bluff to Bakersfield, big corporate farms and branded cooperatives—Diamond walnuts, Sun-Maid raisins, Sunkist citrus, and Sunsweet plums, for example—are global farm operations that benefit from preferential water agreements and depend on them for profits. On the coast, there’s lettuce and truck crops, providing winter salads and vegetables to all of America at amazingly low prices. No farms, no food, say bumper stickers in farm country.

Much California-style produce can be, and today is often, grown more cheaply in Mexico, Brazil, and Chile: avocados, tomatoes, oranges, pears, and plums. Hispanic farm managers and field workers do the labor on highly capitalized farmland often leased by absentee owners. Agricultural nationalism appeals to a large number of Americans of all backgrounds—but not to global processors themselves, whose marketers and lobbies impersonate old-timey family farms in a 21st-century world.

In recent years, California has made steady progress in water conservation, both in recycling and decreasing waste per capita. In 2014, it created a long overdue groundwater oversight system to end reckless me-first drilling. Promising re-investment in infrastructure, a $7 billion water bond passed in 2014 would pay for a host of projects from flood control to water quality. It specifically set aside $2.7 billion for water storage projects. Unheralded, capable civil engineers and field managers move water through systems daily without fanfare or applause. Expanded drip systems and metered water deliveries are the agronomic future, but conversion costs are huge, especially when water is plentiful, cheap, or free. Ditch irrigation is easy and in place.

California’s exponential growth and natural geography remain in conflict. Densely populated, water-free areas of the state demand plentiful, inexpensive water. The nation’s interest in abundant, secure food production is self-evident. Unwanted tradeoffs between the two are inevitable in the future, climate change or not.

Gilbert T. Sewall is co-author of After Hiroshima: The United States Since 1945 and editor of The Eighties: A Reader.