Bruce Cain is a professor of Political Science and the Spence and Cleone Eccles Family Director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West. I sat down with him on April 6 to discuss California Governor Jerry Brown’s recent drought action. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our interview.


Sarah Sadlier: Gov. Jerry Brown’s new mandatory restrictions will cut water consumption in cities and towns by 25 percent compared with levels in 2013. However, Gov. Brown’s executive order does not currently extend to California farmers, who consume 80 percent of the state’s water supply but make up less than two percent of the state’s economy. Are there and should there be new guidelines or practices applied to this agricultural water use? How feasible would such actions be for California politicians?

Bruce Cain: If the drought continues, we will definitely move in that direction, and the governor will lead the charge. What the governor has done is follow the path of least political resistance. The easiest thing to cut right now is water for decorative uses, like grass, outdoor vegetation, etc. So, I think what the governor did was pick on the easiest thing first because every step along the way is going to get more painful. Understandably, he doesn’t want to have to get to the painful steps until he has to.

Step number one is, again, the outdoor use. Then, the question is, “what is step number two?” He could restrict showers, restrict water for indoor use, but that would be incredibly politically painful, and we already see that there is a lot of pressure between the urban-suburban uses and the rural agricultural uses. It’s already there in the papers every day, but the political pressure is all on the side of the urban-suburban because that is where the votes are.

As I see it, step number two will be the agricultural sector, and the problem right now is that you can’t do this officially because of the senior water rights and the appropriative rights and because the pricing system is so highly subsidized. Since it is highly subsidized, people are not behaving as if they know that water is a scarce resource in agriculture. That means that we have some crops that are either very low value and are being subsidized, or we have crops that are high value that are soaking up way too much water. If it comes down to an urban or suburban individual not being able to take a shower more than once a week, and a person is growing almonds when they only constitute a small fraction of the state GDP, I’m betting that the urban or suburban individual gets her way.

SS: Almost 84 percent of the world’s almonds come from California, but it takes 1.1 trillion gallons of water a year to produce this crop. Do you think it is the responsibility of government to regulate the production of water intensive crops? Would this be politically feasible considering that major politicians, such as Brown and Senator Dianne Feinstein, have received large political contributions from the state’s nut producers?

BC: The amount of money that these politicians receive pales in comparison to the money from super PACs, the unions, and the urban donors, so I don’t think the money is going to get in the way there if push comes to shove. You always prefer votes to money, and the votes are definitely on the side of the urban and suburban. Jerry Brown does not have to pick almonds or alfalfa: all he has to do is get rid of subsidies and make everybody pay the true cost of the water in the agricultural sector. Once you do that, then farmers will have to make these decisions. Let’s remember that most of this crop is exported, so it’s not like anybody in California is going to starve as a result of this. It is true that certain people will lose their jobs, but that is a hard choice that has to be made given the circumstances.

From my point of view, the best political thing to do is get rid of the subsidies, get rid of the senior water rights, and let the market do the dirty work. Indeed, we also have this problem of groundwater pumping because we are only now starting to manage that groundwater, and the mechanisms for creating laws to regulate it are in the early stages, so we have this problem that the farmers may well just continue to sap water out of the ground in response to the rise in prices of the surface water, and that part of the equation must be dealt with, as well. Still, Jerry Brown has emergency powers. It is very important to realize that with those emergency powers there, some people believe that he could do away with some of these rights and subsidies. Emergency powers can be very strong, and I wouldn’t be surprised if these are used if the drought becomes serious enough. For one thing, you could change the state constitution, so you could get rid of the rights or subsidies through an initiative measure, so it is changeable if you need to do it.

SS: In our efforts to conserve water, do we need to step beyond the political sphere and attempt cultural as well as political change? State officials have launched a new advertising campaign for water conservation, and they claim that they are raising awareness of the drought. Is this enough?

BC: That is kind of what we did last year, and the problem is that until the drought actually hurts Californians in the form of prices, you are not really going to change behavior much beyond what you’ve done. The Brown administration had to move to these mandatory goals because there are some communities that were simply continuing to use water because they could and they wanted to. Clearly, they are going to need to change their behavior as well, even though they are only a small part of the population, but there is no question that training people to be more conscious of the way they use water is an important part.

There may also be a technical component to this problem. Many of us live in apartments, and when you turn on the water to take a shower, it takes about five minutes for the water to warm up. Do you really think that people have to get into cold showers? Are you really going to be able to sell that when farmers are using the water to grow almonds? I am going to guess no, and unless we come up with some solutions to instantly heat the water, and I don’t know whether such solutions exist, my guess is that they would be energy intensive. The problem we are going to run into is that we may generate another electricity crisis if we create much more energy intensive techniques for warming the water. So, there is a water-energy nexus problem, that needs to be solved, as well.

SS: A survey conducted in March from the Public Policy Institute of California showed that water issues have become as important in voters’ minds as jobs and the economy. Does this fact make you optimistic about the future of water conservation in California politics?

BC: Yes, but emergencies always induce more responsible behavior, and non-emergencies allow us to slip back into bad habits. I think what we need to do is really look at water storage; that in itself is another political controversy that we are going to have down the road because farmers and certain traditional producer groups like reservoirs and dams, but they take a lot of money and they have an environmental cost. So, most people around here are pushing for groundwater reservoirs to be renewed. Orange County already does that for a different reason, which is to keep saltwater from entering the reservoir.

We need to take recycling of water very seriously. We need to look into indirect potable use, which is what they do in Southern California, where they take the runoff water and clean it up and still it back into these groundwater aquifers. The even more adventurous thing to do would be to have direct potable use and put the recycled water in the tap. There are countries like Singapore who have done that. We at Stanford are starting conversations about how we can lead the way with either direct or indirect potable use.

SS: California has 38 million residents and the world’s seventh-largest economy. Will California continue to experience the same level of growth if we cannot find a political solution to the drought?

BC: No, water is absolutely essential to the functioning of the economy, as is energy, and if we really can’t provide the water to support the population that we have here, people are going to migrate out, and we may lose businesses, as well. Thus, we have to solve this problem. Essentially, California was constructed on an icebox system, where we store the water out in the mountain in the form of snow and ice and then it is released gradually, which meant we had a great system going. Now, climate change may or may not reduce the amount of water we get, but the point is that the rising temperatures are wrecking the icebox system, so the premise of our whole system is collapsing.

The question is what do we do now that the icebox is not effective, or at least for the time being, isn’t as effective? That is where water storage, water conservation, and the rethinking of whether we can afford to be the breadbasket for the rest of the world, comes into consideration. That is part of the conversation going forward. If we were to build more reservoirs, there are the dams, the litigation that is involved in that, and all the various permits you need. That is expensive, and desalination raises environmental questions, such as where to put the excessively salted water, which can create dead spots in the ocean. It is also very expensive. We can do all of these things, but when we look at all of it in order to support crops, it might not be worthwhile. The more we can let prices do the work to determine how we use water, the better.

Sarah Sadlier, a junior studying history, American studies, Iberian and Latin American cultures, and political science, is the interviews editor of Stanford Political Journal.