Lentis/Competition for Water in California



California’s climate yields harsh and destructive droughts, intensifying in the summer months and leading to extreme water shortages with accompanying crop and property damage[1][2]. History informs public policy, grassroots efforts, and innovative social solutions as Californians grapple with resource management. This chapter highlights the current environment and details the ideas leading to a better future.



Water Usage


California's water usage is divided into three categories; Environmental, Agricultural, and Urban[3]. Overall, environmental purposes such as habitat and wetland retention or water in rivers accounts for the largest part of usage. Despite the state's large population, urban use has the smallest impact, though it is the predominant need in the dry, southern parts of the state[3].

Large discrepancies exist between areas of the population however. Affluent populations use the most, like Rancho Santa Fe (584.4 gal/day/person) and Beverly Hills (~300 gal/day/person), while residents of Los Angeles use 92.8 gal/day/person and San Franciscans use a scant 45.7 gal/day/person[4].

Despite these numbers, water usage seems to be heading in the right direction as gross and per capita water use fell under increasing population[3]. Percent change has been better for urban use than agriculture, but is a smaller sector of usage so the resulting effect is slightly mitigated. In the past 20 years, gross water use fell by 22% as a result from pricing incentives and low-flow technology installations[3].

Water Shortage


California's climate is responsible for water shortages today. The most recent drought period lasted 8 years from 2011 to 2019, leading to exceptional drought conditions across more than 50% of the state in June 2014[5]. The lack of naturally occurring water brings challenges to water-dependent groups. Dried up pools and ponds increase inefficiency of firefighters, who must go farther to find auxiliary water to battle large blazes[1]. A lack of proper irrigation combined with intense heat also leads to crop production decreases in products such as grapes, tomatoes, and nuts[2].

California Water Rights


When California was first founded, the state used Riparian water rights, which gave anyone owning land bordering a water source the right to freely use that water. These rights stayed with the property. During the gold rush, miners started claiming appropriative rights to water, where the first to claim a body of water had free use of it. Now, California has to balance these two conflicting rights. Its constitution requires that all water be both "beneficial" and "reasonable". Beneficial uses are well-defined by the law, but reasonableness is not. According to the State Supreme Court, reasonableness is "determined by the circumstances"[6].

Critics of the water rights system argue that farmers have no incentive to cut back water use during droughts, while farmers say that dividing the water up another way would be like "taking everyone's paycheck, putting it into a pool, and saying: "We're going to divide that up evenly."[7].

California Water Wars


In the late 1800s, California's Owens Valley was heavily irrigated for farmland. The water came from the nearby Owens River as well as runoff from the Sierra Nevada. But at the start of the 20th century, the city of Los Angeles wanted to expand. To do that, it needed more water, which could be easily redirected if an aquifer from Owens Valley was built[8].

To get the water rights needed to achieve this, Frederick Eaton, Los Angeles's City Engineer, started privately buying land in Owens Valley with the intent to sell it to the city for a profit. Meanwhile, William Mulholland, the superintendent of the Water Company, convinced the city that they needed the water by downplaying the amount of water already available to the city[8].

After Mulholland claimed that the proposed aqueduct would only use unused water from Owens Valley, the city eventually approved the plan, though only after intense pushback and even violence from the residents of Owens Valley. Some ranchers even dynamited part of the aqueduct to return water to the Owens River. After a second aqueduct was made, water was pumped from Owens Valley at such a rate that springs and rivers began to dry up, and by 1928, Los Angeles owned 90 percent of the water in Owens Valley. Years later, and after many lawsuits, the aqueduct was opened back up to release water back into the Owens Valley River, but the region still has a net water loss due to groundwater pumping[8]. Because of this, Owens Valley is turning into a desert[9].

Public Policy


The public policy regarding the water usage in California comes from two levels, federal and state. In the federal level, the Trump Administration has been attempting to follow through on the campaign promise of giving central valley farmers more water and to accomplish this goal, the administration has been attempting to accelerate water supply decisions. Unfortunately, the decisions made appear to be too dangerous according to various critics. A former federal biologist who wished to remain anonymous even critiqued that making shortcuts in the scientific process for these decisions poses some risk and danger. This concern is not unshared either, as other federal scientists have raised this same concern and have shown so through internal emails obtained via Freedom of Information of Act. According to this, the agency itself is lacking in manpower to perform these tests and proper scientific analysis so that water can be diverted safely and responsibly. [10]

In response to these federal decisions, the state of California has decided to fight back, with the attorney general saying that they won’t allow Trump to destroy and deplete California’s resources. Trump has stated that since California is not in a drought, his policies are fine, but the state has repeatedly been warning the administration of a possible drought that may occur. Trump has also ordered the Interior Department to reconsider the scientific evidence so that the water in California could be redistributed and in October of 2019, the department has decided to change its opinions on the protection of the wildlife, and more specifically of the long time protected fish. [11]

On the state side of public policy, when it was not busy fighting the federal changes, the California state government had passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in 2014 which would seek to redistribute water amongst urban and agricultural usage. The famers in California however are against this redistribution of water due to protection by riparian water rights and because there is a chance some could receive little to no water under this act. Despite these changes, there is no radical act or proposal by the state government as they do not wish to upset the food supply chain. [7].

Responsible Water Use Advocacy


During the most recent drought, the governor of California asked citizens to reduce their water consumption by 25% as part of some severe water restrictions in the state. The residents of California reduced their water consumption by 31% instead, going above and beyond what was required. However, there is still a severe water shortage in California. Some blame this on the environmental conservation policies set forth by the state, which account for more than 50% of the water flows in the state. [12]. Environmental protection laws and Endangered Species Act that exist to support species such as the Delta Fish have also led to 1.4 trillion gallons of water being flushed back into the San Francisco Bay. The amount of water flushed would be more than enough to sustain over 6 million people for 6 years. [12] [13]. There is potential for greater rainwater use in California. California has plenty of rain, approximately 3.6 inches in LA alone, which generates about 3.8 billion gallons of water runoff per inch, which in total equals more than 12 billion gallons of water that could potentially be captured and when used could power most of the city. Rainwater capturing technology has been used by countries such as Australia, whose per capita water user is only second to the United States, so with some changes, it could be used in California as well[13] .

Lawn Innovations in California


In an effort to reduce the need for lawncare irrigation, some residents are turning to unorthodox tactics[14][15]. The painting technique was used previously on golf courses to maintain an attractive image without overuse. The solution is temporary, but has become attractive to private residences as an alternative to more expensive artificial turf[14]. The dye is made from a natural pigment, will not harm the grass's future growth, and is non-toxic to pets, children, and the environment[14].

Another change residents are making to their lawns involves replacing grass with drought-resistant vegetation like cacti and succulents[15]. This comes as part of an initiative rolled out by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2015 to encourage low water need vegetation and ban median grass watering[15].



Solutionism will not solve California's water problems, rather better management and the reformation of laws and policies will help both the people in California and the surrounding ecosystem. Next steps would include performing an in-depth scientific analysis on the ecosystem of the state of California and analyzing the needs and priorities of both wildlife and people to fairly determine water distribution so that any needed redistribution can improve the quality of life for all living things. California needs laws and support to be made by proper scientific analysis and without shortcuts.

Suggested Further Research


Further research on this topic could include how facilities use water, such as Nestlé Waters, or how rainwater is collected/used.


  1. a b Gazzar, B. (2017, December 17). How firefighters get their water, and why it's sometimes tricky to get enough. Retrieved December 07, 2020, from https://www.dailynews.com/2017/12/17/how-firefighters-get-their-water-and-why-its-sometimes-tricky-to-get-enough/
  2. a b Kasler, D. (2019, September 25). California farmers face 'catastrophic' water restrictions. Can they adapt to survive? Retrieved December 07, 2020, from https://www.sacbee.com/news/california/big-valley/article233596597.html
  3. a b c d Mount, J., & Hanak, E. (2019, May 17). Water Use in California. Retrieved December 07, 2020, from https://www.ppic.org/publication/water-use-in-california/
  4. Woody, T. (2014, November 04). Meet California's Biggest Water Hogs. Retrieved December 07, 2020, from http://www.takepart.com/article/2014/11/04/meet-californias-biggest-water-hogs/
  5. National Integrated Drought Information System. (2020, September 21). California. Retrieved December 07, 2020, from https://www.drought.gov/drought/states/california
  6. Water Education Foundation. (n.d.). Water Rights in California. Retrieved December 07, 2020, from https://www.watereducation.org/aquapedia/water-rights-california/
  7. a b Charles, Dan. (2015, April 15). Redistribute California's Water? Not Without A Fight. Retrieved December 09, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/04/15/398607800/redistribute-californias-water-not-without-a-fight
  8. a b c Wikipedia. (n.d.). California Water Wars. Retrieved December 09, 2020, from California water wars
  9. OVCweb. Archived 2011, September 27. Desertification. Retrieved December 09, 2020, from https://web.archive.org/web/20110927073158/http://www.ovcweb.org/Issues/desertification.html
  10. . Sommer, Lauren. “Trump Administration Shortcuts Science To Give California Farmers More Water.” NPR, NPR, 11 Mar. 2019, www.npr.org/2019/03/11/701205836/trump-administration-shortcuts-science-to-give-california-farmers-more-water
  11. . Beitsch, Rebecca. “Trump Signs Order Diverting Water to California Farmers against State Wishes.” The Hill (newspaper), The Hill, 20 Feb. 2020, thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/483754-trump-order-redirects-california-water-supply-after-reversal-from
  12. a b . Telford, Erik. “California Wasting Water Due to Fish and Inefficiency.” Tribune, San Diego Union-Tribune, 3 Dec. 2015, www.sandiegouniontribune.com/opinion/commentary/sdut-california-water-drought-2015dec02-story.html Invalid <ref> tag; name "Telford" defined multiple times with different content
  13. a b . Zakaras, Michael. “Why Does California Let Billions Of Gallons Of Fresh Water Flow Straight Into The Ocean?” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 30 May 2016, www.forbes.com/sites/ashoka/2015/04/15/why-does-california-let-billions-of-gallons-of-fresh-water-flow-straight-into-the-ocean/?sh=2bfc7858517c Invalid <ref> tag; name "Zakaras" defined multiple times with different content
  14. a b c Cave, J. (2015, July 29). California's Drought Is So Bad Some People Are Painting Their Lawns Green. Retrieved December 07, 2020, from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/lawn-painting-california-drought_n_55b6511de4b0a13f9d19172d
  15. a b c Maher, J. (2015, May 20). Californians get their drought-parched lawns painted green. Retrieved December 07, 2020, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/05/20/california-drought-painting-lawn-green/27632853/