Reclaiming Water Politics: California’s Drought and the Eclipse of the Public

Caleb Scoville

Establishing an alternative relationship with water requires that we acknowledge that the one we inherited is not the result of a natural process, but the outcome of a human history that could have been otherwise.

photo credit: CC-BY 2.0. Robert Couse-Baker

Decades before California’s colossal water projects took shape, John Dewey located an enduring problem of modern industrial society. He defined “the eclipse of the public” as the tendency to mischaracterize truly collective problems as matters of private concern. Dewey argued that this form of ignorance forestalls democratic responses to collective challenges, ultimately endangering human freedom.[1]

California’s present drought reveals an eclipse of the public that calls for a renewal of Dewey’s concern about the anti-political tendencies of modern industrial society. The dominant ways of making sense of California’s water crisis center on the interests of individual actors. As such they do little to catalyze a productive public discourse about the status of water in California. This is in great part because they cannot provide a critique of the underlying image of nature and its relation to society that is inscribed in the material and institutional structures that condition the collective existence of Californians today.

Below I sketch the image of nature and its relation to society that permeates the most critical historical phases of California’s relationship with water. While it has since faded in significant ways, its material and institutional legacy constrains our ability to construct alternative relationships with water that are socially just, ecologically resilient, and economically rational. Establishing an alternative relationship with water requires that we acknowledge that the one we inherited is not the result of a natural process, but the outcome of a human history that could have been otherwise.

Talking about water, thinking about power

The dominant way of making sense of California’s water crisis is to analyze the interests of individual actors. There are two versions of this approach. The first is an economic rendition, which seeks to make visible water use and its implications across the state. Particularly popular are visualizations of the gallons of water required to produce various crops.[2] Informative and at times entertaining, this type of presentation casts the issue in arithmetic terms, the underlying goal of which is to provide a stock of useful information to empower the conscious consumer. (According to this view, if only we consumed fewer almonds and more cantaloupes, for example, we wouldn’t be in this mess!)

The second version is to frame California’s water crisis in terms of conflict and coercion. This perspective has a long history, as encapsulated in the widely repeated dictum that “water flows uphill towards money.” It was artfully brought to life by Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), in which a private investigator confronts the corrupt politics behind the city of Los Angeles’s acquisition of water resources. In this vein, the present water crisis has been presented in terms of the impropriety of regulators, the ability of the rich to subvert restrictions on water use, and as essentially composed of clashes between various interested parties.[3]

These interpretations leave unexamined—and thus fully intact—the fundamentals of our relationship with water. We are presented with a broken world in need of a technical fix, or with a set of culpable actors in need of reprimand. To invent a new relationship with water, we need to be in a position to recognize the contingency of our current one. This requires a broad historical scope and a conceptual analysis of what is at stake when we argue over the status of water. By making visible and problematizing the conceptions of nature and its relationship to society inscribed in the history of California’s major water development projects, we place ourselves in the position to provide a more comprehensive analysis of current power struggles over water in the state.

Implicit in the dominant discourses about California’s water politics is a reliance on what Steven Lukes calls a one-dimensional view of power. Power, in this conception, refers to the ability of elites to get what they want by taking it from others or making them give it to them. Within this framework we can represent some of power’s effects, but few of its causes. A two-dimensional view of power, by contrast, expands the scope of analysis to include the role of agenda control. In addition to observable, positive exercises of power over others, the powerful are able to decide which issues count as valid. But a thoroughgoing critique of water politics requires a three-dimensional view of power, according to which the most important exercises of power are not simply those that keep people from getting what they want or publicly airing their grievances, but instead prevent them from formulating grievances in the first place. The powerful (in the three-dimensional sense) produce subjects who “accept their role in the existing order of things, either because they can see or imagine no alternative to it, or because they see it as natural and unchangeable, or because they value it as divinely ordained or beneficial.”[4]

Unlike one-dimensional renditions, which reduce the problem to the behavior of rational, self-interested actors, a three-dimensional critique of water politics in California asks how the relationship with water that we inherited permeates our conceptions of what is possible, natural, and desirable. Such a critique can clarify the collective nature of the problem, a precondition for bringing the public out of eclipse and, by extension, for a democratic response to California’s water crisis.

Reclaiming Eden in the West

The historical development of California’s water resources was justified by the guiding image of “reclamation.” In 1850, the Swamp Land Act transferred large amounts of federally owned wetlands to individual states so that they could be reclaimed (drained) and put to productive agricultural use. In California, organizing and funding reclamation projects was initially up to individual farmers, but as the 19th century came to a close, joint stock corporations and newly formed irrigation districts enabled larger-scale undertakings.[5]

Yet as Patrick Carroll notes, reclamation was not merely a technical term, but a thoroughly religious one. It “was bound up in a moral discourse of civilizing nature, of ordering the world and making it economically productive, and thus it was the basis of a civilized society.” Deeply implicated was “the religious idea of regaining Eden as a sign of grace.”[6] For example, in a scientific report published in 1891, a proponent of reclamation interpreted the flooding of the Colorado Desert as follows: “The Colorado River seems to have repented of its evil work, and is now seeking to atone for its great sin, in desolating so large a portion of the earth, by refilling the desert sea.”[7] Acts of repentance were of course rarely attributed to nature in the absence of human intervention. Beyond simply connoting the acceptability or prudence of enjoying the bounties of Creation, reclamation designated the act of bringing otherwise useless land into cultivation a moral imperative.

In 1902, the Federal Reclamation Act created the Reclamation Service, the predecessor of what is now the Bureau of Reclamation. If the Swamp Land Act empowered states to develop their own strategies for civilizing nature, the Reclamation Act made it the direct purview of the Federal Government. It also promoted a different physical manifestation of reclamation. Rather than removing water from places deemed to have too much, the Reclamation Act funded the irrigation of parts of the West with too little water to be agriculturally productive: to turn the desert into a garden.

The stated vision was a rural, agrarian society composed of small family farms reliant on the government only for deliveries of water. An early annual report of the Reclamation Service laid out a moral hierarchy of reclamation’s subjects, the pinnacle of which was the “real farmer, the man who makes the principal part of his living by the tilling of the soil.” “This is the type of man who should be given most encouragement,” the report continued, “as it is his skill and labor intelligently applied that is adding to the permanent values of the country.” This figure was placed in opposition to the less deserving “investor” and “speculator.”[8] To the dismay of the earliest proponents of reclamation, an irrigated West proved too lucrative to be insulated from these parties, and the preeminence of the “real farmer” was mostly abandoned by the 1930s, at least as a practical matter.[9] New economic interests having been enrolled in the cause, the project of reclamation continued on nonetheless, dedicated as ever to the imperative of bringing previously useless land into cultivation, but at a scale and toward ends unimaginable by its earlier exponents.

Reclamation endures, not simply in the minds of its proponents, but in the very places and productive capacities that were “reclaimed” and continuously present themselves to us as immutable fixtures of the universe.

Water development projects proved to be integral to the development of the modern American state apparatus in terms of expanding food and fiber production, providing flood control, enabling the growth of urban centers, and eventually as a source of expansionary fiscal policy and hydroelectric energy. Two massive projects in particular define California’s relationship with water. The first is the federally managed Central Valley Project, which was “the largest infrastructure of any kind in the world at the time it was built,” from the 1930s to the 1970s. The second is “the State Water Project [which] remains the largest infrastructure built by any state government in the union.”[10] Together they transformed the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (or simply “the Delta”), the West Coast’s largest estuary and the confluence of its two major river systems, into a machine for the conveyance of water southbound, a significant portion of which must be pumped thousands of feet over mountain ranges to reach its final destination. Significant portions of the state were brought into agricultural rotation that could never have been exploited without highly subsidized deliveries of water. Together, the projects irrigate about 4.75 million acres of farmland, about the combined total area of Delaware and Connecticut. Water imports from Northern California and the Colorado River supported the needs of growing metropolises like Los Angeles and San Diego, which in turn allowed these cities to expand at an even greater pace, accumulating greater economic and political clout in the process.

In the case of water infrastructure in the 20th century American West, the direction of development was in the hands of a small group of individuals united in allegiance to the guiding image of reclamation. Floyd Dominy, the head of the Bureau of Reclamation from 1959 to 1969, was its most vocal and influential exponent. His crowning achievement was the Glen Canyon Dam, which turned a stretch of the Colorado River into Lake Powell, a reservoir that boasts more shoreline miles than the entire West Coast of the United States.[11] Instrumental in the completion of the Central Valley Project, Dominy exemplified the religiosity of reclamation in full form. “I have no apologies,” he once exclaimed when asked about his legacy. “I was a crusader for the development of water. I was the Messiah.”[12]

“Putting water to work for man”

Few individuals in human history have had as great an influence on the physical landscape of the world as did Dominy. And his case makes clear that a one-dimensional conception of power is insufficient in the analysis of California’s (and more broadly the West’s) relationship with water. More essential than greed or narrow self-interest is the relation to nature inscribed in the projects executed by Dominy and his political allies. According to this view, nature is insignificant in the absence of utility extraction. But it would be incorrect to interpret Dominy’s version of reclamation as the simple instrumentalization of nature. It contained a distinctive moral vision characterized by an imperative to reengineer the natural world.

“Reclamation is the father of putting water to work for man,” Dominy explained. “The challenge to man is to do and save what is good but to permit man to progress in civilization.”[13] According to this view, an undammed river is a waste. “I’ve seen all the wild rivers I ever want to see,” he declared in a 1966 speech.[14] Responding to his ideological nemesis David Brower, then Executive Director of the Sierra Club, he argued, “I’m a greater conservationist than you are, by far. I do things. I make things available to man. Unregulated, the Colorado River wouldn’t be worth a good God damn to anybody.”[15] Asked if the benefits of damming the Sacramento and Columbia rivers were worth the damage it caused to salmon runs, he was equally unapologetic. “I think it’s worth it, yes. I think there are substitutes for eating salmon… You can eat cake.”[16]

Big water projects have been mostly politically out of favor in the United States for the last few decades. But even the winding down of the era for which Dominy serves as a prime exemplar is framed in reclamationist terms. Rather than admit defeat, the Bureau of Reclamation declares victory:

“The arid West essentially has been reclaimed. The major rivers have been harnessed and facilities are in place or are being completed to meet the most pressing current water demands and those of the immediate future.”[17]

And while few defenders of developmentalist water management practices would make their case in Dominy’s terms today, there is plenty of evidence to conclude that reclamation was in fact victorious. Floods no longer threaten Sacramento on a regular basis, Los Angeles and San Diego have been able to grow by orders of magnitude, and California is the agricultural hub of the United States. Reclamation endures, not simply in the minds of its proponents, but in the very places and productive capacities that were “reclaimed” and continuously present themselves to us as immutable fixtures of the universe.

Marx argued that humans make their own history, not “under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”[18] In this sense, the built environment is both a reflection of the time in which it was built and a conditioner of the present. Physical structures built with reclamationist justifications continue to mediate social relations. We cannot escape the influence of our collective inheritance through a simple act of disavowal. But rendering that inheritance visible is a precondition for living responsibly as a collective.

California today: living in the house reclamation built

For most Californians the circumstances handed down from the era of reclamation are invisible, or rather, so visible that they are naturalized. It is only under conditions like the present extreme drought—especially against the backdrop of anxieties about the destabilizing prospects of climate change—that we have an opportunity to actively confront them. Images of half-empty reservoirs with “bathtub-rings” show how far below capacity they are. Mandatory moratoriums on car-washing and lawn-watering are in effect in many parts of the state. Farm workers are being laid off. Previously productive land lays fallow. Unsustainable groundwater pumping dries out wells and causes land subsidence. Species that were endangered by the manipulation of their habitats for the extraction of water are in a more precarious position than ever. What reclamation rendered unproblematic, fixed, and economically necessary, now appears fragile, even dangerous.

But while the messianic vision of reclamation no longer commands the public imagination as actively as it once did, we still find ourselves constrained, not only by the physicality of the infrastructure that was built before most of us can remember, but also by the moral and technological vocabularies we inherited to evaluate our relationship with nature. An active defense of reclamation is no longer necessary, but alternatives remain, for the most part, unthinkable. Political leaders in both major parties, whether they realize it or not, are approaching the water crisis by doubling down on the old reclamationist model. The Bureau was wrong to claim victory, their proposals imply. The war on nature has only just begun!

California governor Jerry Brown, son of the namesake of the 700-mile “Governor Edmund G. Brown California Aqueduct,” has been an avid proponent of reclamation since at least his first tenure as governor from 1975 to 1983. His original plan to install a “peripheral canal”—which would have smoothed the conveyance of water to Southern California by bypassing the Delta—was defeated by referendum in 1982. Like his governorship, the plan has been resurrected. His current proposal (which has an expected price tag of somewhere between $15 billion and $67 billion, depending on the version of the plan and how one runs the numbers) would bore two tunnels under the Delta to convey water to Southern California.[19] Although cloaked in politically correct language as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, it remains true to the old model of reclamation. One way of interpreting the consequences of the present drought would be as a sign that we should accept as the new normal curtailed water conveyances in light of the threats associated with climate change. On the contrary, advocates of the tunnels view it as a defensive measure that will enable us to continue to extract fresh water from Northern California at current rates indefinitely.

Rather than critically evaluating the decisions of prior generations, the tunnels plan takes as a natural baseline condition the present level of water extraction that the mid-century water projects locked California into, entrenching us even deeper into the reclamationist model. Given the price tag of the tunnels plan, the problem is not simply economic. Massive reductions in the demand for water could be achieved for a fraction of the cost.

A cynical interpretation of the tunnels plan is that the powerful will always see to it that their interests are served, regardless of the social consequences. There is significant evidence to support the cynical view. But while special interests loom large in the political economy of California’s water, the problem is bigger than them. It is also rooted in the unchallenged reclamationist imaginary that did so much to configure contemporary power relations in the first place. It presents megaprojects like the tunnels as inevitable and refuses to entertain alternatives. “We do not have the luxury of turning back time and reconsidering whether or how to build the state and federal water projects,” writes Mark W. Cowin, director of the California Department of Water Resources, in an op-ed defending the tunnels. The tunnels, he argues, are on the side of reason, science and modernity. Those who oppose it, even if well-meaning, are in the grips of emotion.[20] “Until you’ve put a million hours into [studying] it,” Governor Brown recently shot back to critics of the plan, “shut up.”[21]

The lack of imagination with respect to water issues is widely distributed across the political spectrum. Consider Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina’s recent claim that California’s water problems owe to a lack of storage.[22] (This statement came at a time when the state’s major reservoirs hovered at or below half of normal capacity.) But the most extreme proposal comes from William Shatner—of all people—whose apparently now-defunct $30 billion Kickstarter campaign would have diverted water from Seattle to Southern California, a project that would dwarf the Egyptian pyramids and Panama Canal in scope.[23] This novelty would not be worth noting if the idea hadn’t already been studied intensively and aggressively pursued by Dominy and his colleagues at the Bureau of Reclamation back in the 1960s.[24] Needless to say, even the heyday of reclamation had its limits, and the Columbia River diversion project never left the ground.

Inventing a new relationship with water

What would a different relationship with water look like? Although no comprehensive alternative to reclamation has captivated the public imagination, two movements hint at alternative ways of politicizing water.

The first approach is to shift the terms of discourse to how our relationships with nature result in the domination of people. This is the approach of the environmental justice movement, and while it does not necessarily provide an alternative image of nature, it shows the extent to which California’s water projects failed its most vulnerable residents. Thousands (and by some counts, millions) of people in California, individuals who are disproportionately poor and predominantly people of color, are without safe tap water for drinking and sanitation.[25] Many of the communities affected are in the southern Central Valley, directly adjacent to the aqueducts that bring water to Southern California’s cities and farms. The depletion and contamination of groundwater, which is insufficiently regulated in the state, put the interests of agricultural users who continue to drill deeper and deeper for water, against the communities that surround them. These communities are populated in great measure by the laborers on which the farms rely. The passage of California’s AB 685, which declared water a human right, is a small, if symbolic step in the direction of environmental justice.[26]

While environmental justice will be a crucial component of constructing an alternative relationship with water in California, it does not address the status of the dams, reservoirs, and aqueducts that shaped California’s trajectory through the 20th century. In stark opposition to Brown and Fiorina’s claims that the solution to our water ills is more massive physical infrastructural projects, a growing dam removal movement has begun to take hold in environmental circles and government agencies in several states. In 2014, after a decades-long political struggle, the largest dam removal in world history was completed on the Elwha River in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Salmon runs have already made a significant comeback. Daniel P. Beard, former commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, argues explicitly for the demolition of Dominy’s Glen Canyon Dam and even the abolition of the Bureau of Reclamation. His central claim is that while large infrastructural projects are always justified in technical terms, and despite their physical grandeur, we should view them as mutable artifacts of political struggles that may no longer be relevant to us.[27] The dam removal movement may inspire some California environmentalists to challenge what is presented as inevitable, but it remains to be seen if it contains resources for a positive counter-framework to reclamation that can appeal broadly to constituents of arid regions.

Rather than uncritically reproducing the collective relationship with water that we inherited, we should challenge the legacy of reclamation head-on. Confronting the image of nature and its relation to society that is inscribed in the physical and institutional structures that condition our existence can help us develop a substantive public discourse about the ends our relationship with water should serve. The management of water has been critical to the making of modern California. In reclaiming water as a political object, we address the questions: Who are we today and what will we become?


Caleb Scoville is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. He studies environmental politics.


References and Footnotes

  1. Dewey, John. The Public and Its Problems. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1927.
  2. For example: Buchanan, Larry, Josh Keller, and Haeyoun Park. “Your Contribution to the California Drought.” The New York Times. May 20, 2015; Krishnakumar, Priya, Jon Schleuss, and Kyle Kim. “Eating the Drought: How Much Water Goes into Your Meal?” Los Angeles Times. April 7, 2015; Lurie, Julia, and Alex Park. “It Takes How Much Water to Grow an Almond?!” Mother Jones. February 24, 2014.
  3. For example: Reid, Tim. “In California Drought, Big Money, Many Actors, Little Oversight.” Reuters. April 25, 2014; Kuznia, Rob. “Rich Californians Balk at Limits: ‘We’re Not All Equal When It Comes to Water’” Washington Post. June 15, 2015; Goode, Erica. “Troubled Delta System Is California’s Water Battleground.” The New York Times. June 25, 2015.
  4. Lukes, Steven. Power: A Radical View. London: Macmillan, 1974. 24.
  5. Worster, Donald, Under Western Skies: Nature and History in the American West. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. 53-63.
  6. Carroll, Patrick. “Water and Technoscientific State Formation in California.” Social Studies of Science. 42.4 (2012): 489-516.
  7. Cecil-Stephens, B. A. “The Colorado Desert and Its Recent Flooding.” Journal of the American Geographical Society of New York. 23 (1891): 367-377
  8. Newell, Frederick H. Twelfth Annual Report of the Reclamation Service, 1912-1913. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1914. 5.
  9. Reisner, Marc. Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. New York: Penguin Books, 1993. 104-119.
  10. Carroll, Patrick. “Water and Technoscientific State Formation in California.”
  11. “Lake Powell Frequently Asked Questions.” Lake Powell Resorts & Marinas. 2015.
  12. Arnold, Elizabeth. “The Legacy Of Dam Architect Floyd Dominy.” NPR. May 4, 2010.
  13. McPhee, John. Encounters with the Archdruid. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971. 172-173.
  14. Reisner, Marc. Cadillac Desert, 242.
  15. McPhee, John. Encounters with the Archdruid, 240.
  16. Korten, Fran. “Book Review: Cadillac Desert, by Sandra Itkoff and Jonathan Taplin.” YES! Magazine. September 30, 1997.
  17. “Bureau of Reclamation: A Very Brief History.” Bureau of Reclamation. 2015.
  18. Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Marx-Engels Reader. Ed. Robert C. Tucker. New York: Norton, 1978. 595.
  19. See: Siders, David, and Dale Kasler. “Jerry Brown to Water Tunnels Critics: ‘Shut Up’” The Sacramento Bee. May 6, 2015; Boxall, Bettina. “$25-billion Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Tunnel Project Reexamined.” Los Angeles Times. April 4, 2015; Rogers, Paul. “Delta Tunnels Plan’s True Price Tag: As Much as $67 Billion.” San Jose Mercury News. December 26, 2013.
  20. Cowin, Mark. “Bay Delta Conservation Plan: Diverting Water, Balancing Needs.” SFGate. September 17, 2014.
  21. Siders, David, and Dale Kasler. “Jerry Brown to Water Tunnels Critics: ‘Shut Up.’”
  22. Fiorina, Carly. New Hampshire Republican Leadership Summit. April 18, 2015.
  23. Pogue, David. “Exclusive: William Shatner’s $30 Billion Kickstarter Campaign to Save California.” Yahoo Tech. April 17, 2015.
  24. Reisner, Marc. Cadillac Desert, 275-280.
  25. Thirsty for Justice: Struggle for the Human Right to Water. Sacramento: Environmental Justice Coalition for Water, 2014. Film.
  26. “The Human Right to Water Bill in California: An Implementation Framework for State Agencies.” International Human Rights Law Clinic, University of California, Berkeley School of Law. May, 2013.
  27. Beard, Daniel P. Deadbeat Dams: Why We Should Abolish the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Tear Down Glen Canyon Dam. Boulder: Johnson Books, 2015.