No Shortage of Water Mythmakers

APRIL 5, 2011


Does California have enough water?

Peter H. Gleick of the Pacific Institute in Oakland thinks not. He wrote yesterday in “Myths of California water shortfalls” that it is a myth there is enough water to meet 100 percent of the demands in California. But is Gleick exposing myths, or is he subtly posing his own counter-myths?

Dr. Gleick, PhD, is co-founder of the Pacific Institute (not same as the Pacific Research Institute,’s parent institute).

Gleick’s group is a think tank for “water, sustainability and justice, and globalization” that is funded by a wide array of corporate, government and foundation sponsors, but whose board of directors is all green.

Mythical “Not Enough Water”

The curtain should be pulled back, says Dr. Gleick, on “one of the most common myths of California’s water situation — that there is enough water to satisfy 100 percent demand.”

Gleick asserts that it isn’t “some terrible person, agency, or water policy, or fish” that is “depriving humans of desperately needed water, even in time or record snowpack.” The real fault is in over-subscribed commitments to deliver “all the water they want all the time…resulting in eight times as many water rights given away as there is water available in an average year.”

Let’s take a look at Gleick’s claim.

California hasn’t built any resource reservoirs in decades, so his contention of lack of supply is superficially true.

But Gleick avoids focusing on the more important issue of the total supply of precipitation and imported water.

For example, California is considered a state in perpetual drought. But in 1998 — a wet year — rainfall and imports totaled 335 million acre-feet (MAF) of water, or enough water for 670 million urban households. That also would be enough water for about 1.675 billion people. Or 335 million acres of farming — more than ten times the current farming acreage of about 25 million acres.

And 64 percent of that water went to the environment, not farms, not industry, not cities and not suburbs.

Moreover, agriculture and industry, not urban cities, conserved 6.65 million acre-feet of water. That’s enough for 13.3 million urban households or 6.65 million acres of farming.

In a dry year in California such as 2001, there was “only” 145 million acre-feet of rainfall and imports. What was enough for 290 million urban households or 145 million acres of farming.

The problem is capture, storage and treatment — not drought, lack of conservation, the amount of water used by agriculture, global warming, unsustainability or population growth.

Mythical Eight Fold Water Rights

Writes Mike Wade of the California Farm Water Coalition, one of Gleick’s online adversaries:

He [Gleick] claims that the State Water Resources Control Board has acknowledged that there are eight times as many water rights given away as there is water available in an average year. The truth is that water rights permits are issued for time and place of use, not simply gross quantity.

A prime example is for power generation. A user may have a water right permit to generate power on a specific river. But such is not a consumptive use of that water. Multiple permits for the same water only mean that we are efficiently using it over and over again.

You would think Gleick would herald that as water-use efficiency, something he claims to support. But he doesn’t do that because it would pull the curtain back a little too far.

Mythical 75 percent of water goes to agriculture

Or let’s look at the widespread “fact” propagated by Dr. Gleick among many others that agriculture uses 75 percent to 80 percent of all “human” or “developable” water in California. Farmers say they use only 41 percent of water, while Gleick says the real number is 80 percent.

I contacted David Baryohay at the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), who said:

It is estimated that about 75 percent of California’s “Developed Water,” such as State Water Project and CVP (Central Valley Project), is delivered for agricultural purposes. However, the total ag use is about 43 percent (1995), reducing to 39 percent (by 2020). The data can be found in California Water Plans (1998, 2004, etc. — no operable link provided).

Mr. Barohay clarified that:

Developed water means water that is being captured by SWP (State Water Project) and CVP (Central Valley Project) projects. This water is runoff from precipitation and snowmelt that is being captured behind State and Federal dams and reservoirs. Groundwater and locally owned and operated water systems are not part of developed water. Water for agriculture is raw water (untreated). For use by humans (as potable), it must be treated before consumption.

In other words, agricultural water is raw water fit for irrigating crops but not for drinking water for humans. So Gleick’s contention that agriculture uses 80 percent of “human” water is like comparing apples with oranges — raw water with treated water.

However, his contention that it uses 80 percent of all “developable” water would render his claim in error. That’s because DWR indicates that agriculture uses 28 percent of dedicated supply in a wet year or at most 52 percent in a dry year.

According to DWR statistics, agriculture uses a mere 8.2 percent (27.7 MAF/335.5 MAF) of all precipitation and imports in a wet year. And only 23.4 percent in a typical dry year (34.1 MAF/145.5 MAF). I could not find third-party validation for Gleick’s 80 percent figure.

Mythical claim that drought was good for agriculture

The agricultural industry did not suffer during the recent past drought, claims Gleick, as “the total value of California’s agricultural products broke all records.”

Gleick conveniently ignores that farmers in one California valley undeniably did have their water cut off; and that farmers just shifted to use of groundwater supplies and alternative crops that use less water.

But Gleick is also opposed to farmers having the right to use groundwater given to them by the courts, federal laws or common law. He wants to undo the rule of the law and replace it with “groundwater management authorities,” presumably controlled by environmentalists rather than courts or a jury of common persons.

Southern California has had a long record of decentralized, self-governing — but adjudicated in state courts — water basin management without the need for some politicized, bureaucratic groundwater management agency.

Mythical No More Money for Large Water Projects

Another one of Gleick’s online adversaries, identified as “valuequestor,” refutes his statement, “There is no money for huge new projects to capture more” (water):

Really, Mr. Gleick? But we have money for bullet trains… yet “no more politically or environmentally acceptable places to build” dams. Acceptable to whom? I can’t think of a better public works project and can think of quite a few acceptable locations.

Gleick conveniently avoids discussing California’s five water bonds totaling $18.7 billion. That money mainly has gone for greenbelts and open space in wealthy northern California enclaves, without developing one new dam or reservoir. (See “New Year’s Water Bond Resolutions,”, Dec. 27, 2010).

Mythical species extinction

“Taking as much water as we already do is driving fish, plants and other wildlife to extinction” is another one of Gleick’s mythical statements.

California decided long ago to value the downstream habitats of rose gardens, lawns and warm water fish such as bass and catfish in water canals, over upstream coldwater fish such as salmon or smelt. The “environment” can work either way — either as a warm water or cold water ecosystem. The choice is cultural and political, not environmental or scientific. If you get Channel Catfish instead of Coho Salmon it is called pollution; the same with “native” and “invasive” species.

To go back to an entirely primitive cold water ecosystem, as Gleick seems to want, would mean repealing civilization and modernity itself. It would mean going back to a time when the sea periodically flooded the Sacramento Delta and split California in two in near-tsunami fashion, wiping out nearly all human and animal habitats.

But there probably was abundant salmon fishing in Sacramento after the Delta flooded. And there probably were plenty of fish for baking sasa-kamaboko, a fish cake, in Sendai, Japan after the Tsunami of 2011; just no restaurants or homes to eat it in.

Dr. Gleick is a formidable green-water advocate. And being green and from the Bay Area in California typically serves as a cover for northern California water, including semiconductor manufacturing plants that consume as much water as a small city of 50,000, according to some environmentalists.


As far as can be determined, Gleick is the primary source of the widespread myth that agriculture uses 75 percent to 80 percent of all “human” or “available” water in California, depending on whether Gleick wants to define total water supplies narrowly or broadly. This pernicious myth has been repeated so widely that even water officials believe it to be a fact (even this writer once did).

It is easy to proclaim all your opponent’s positions on water policy as myths when you assume a quasi-religious role as a mythmaker. Gleick is like a religious apocalyptic prophet of doom, only dressed up as a scientist. And like religious false prophets, his prophecies are typically inflated.


In short, Gleick is what is called a “declinist,” who always portrays California’s water situation as declining due to farming and cities. While one of Gleick’s major rhetorical strategies is to call his opponents’ positions all myths, his declinist paradigm is mostly a myth that doesn’t hold water.

Gleick’s typical rhetorical device is to narrowly define his terms, then assert that the use of water by farms and cities is oversubscribed, overused and unsustainable.

This is somewhat comical when:

* Water is cyclical or recycled by nature;
* The same amount of water is on the earth now as millennia ago;
* As cited above, the amount of water precipitation in California could support a population of 100 million and a huge agricultural economy, while lessening the decimating impacts of flooding on wildlife as well as human habitats and life.

As they say in any contest, “know your opponent” and his methods.


Write a comment
  1. Laer Pearce
    Laer Pearce 5 April, 2011, 17:45

    Kudos, Wayne! I’ve wanted to read (or write!) this article for a long time, and you did an excellent job of putting it all together clearly and powerfully. Care to bet on the chances that Gleick will change his tune?

    Reply this comment
  2. Chesla
    Chesla 5 April, 2011, 19:38

    Where morons hang out

    Reply this comment
  3. Wayne Lusvardi
    Wayne Lusvardi 5 April, 2011, 22:25

    For those who may be interested to read more about the “declinist” paradigm. see my book review of “Running Out of Water” by Peter Rogers and Susan Leal (2010) at titled “Denial is a River in California” – Link:

    There is a “flood” (pun intended) of recent water books out by elite experts all embracing the “declinist” paradigm. A “Declinist Paradigm” is reflective of zeitgeist (spirit of the times) when money, not water, is in short supply. See book review for a list of recent water books.

    Reply this comment
  4. Wayne Lusvardi
    Wayne Lusvardi 5 April, 2011, 22:35

    Laer: I do not expect Dr. Gleick to be changing his tune any time soon. He has the support of a broad array of funding organizations including government water agencies apparently desirous of courting the favor of environmentalists. He is a formidable voice who is to be respected but his Declinist Paradigm and his persuasion methods need to be better understood.

    The Declinist Paradigm mentioned in my article and in the book review cited in the above comment (“Denial Is A River in California”) is the Establishment paradigm of water in California, despite facts to the contrary.

    Laer if you know a sponsor willing to underwrite a book on California water using a different paradigm please let me know.

    Reply this comment
  5. J Lund
    J Lund 6 April, 2011, 09:46

    Not sure what you are looking for. Perhaps, “Managing California’s Water: from conflict to reconciliation”,

    Reply this comment
  6. Mike Wade
    Mike Wade 6 April, 2011, 10:22

    This blog does a good job in responding to the myths and half-truths used regularly by farm water bashers. There is broad public support for farmers and that is reflected in an ever-widening circle of individuals willing to stand up to the attacks.

    Mike Wade
    California Farm Water Coalition

    Reply this comment
  7. A.B.
    A.B. 6 April, 2011, 12:14

    We in California are missing out on one fairly obvious solution. Please check it out and let me know what you think;

    Reply this comment
  8. Wayne Lusvardi
    Wayne Lusvardi 6 April, 2011, 12:19

    John Bass over at Delta National Blog has posted a review of my above article and finds that I am mostly correct – See “Myths are Powerful Stories” – Link:

    John is an architect and preservationist who doesn’t hide where he is coming from and his blog deserves a serious read. Here are his comments [Note:I have added some follow up clarification in CAPS]:

    CalWatchDog’s blog has the supply sider argument in a 
refutation by Wayne Lusvardi of a recent piece by pragmatist Peter Gleick on California water myths.

    Mr. Gleick’s post is titled “Myth of California water shortfalls,” and Mr. Lusvardi’s response “No shortage of water mythmakers.” Gleick’s sums up his basic argument thus: The real problem: The assumption that all water users can have all the water they want all the time and that when 100 percent of such expectations cannot be met, something is wrong.

    Mr. Lusvardi disagrees, and implies, we think unfairly, that the sources of funding support Mr. Gleick’s Pacific Institute receives are good reason to question the legitimacy of his motives. One can question motives, of course, but whether Mr. Lusvardi likes them or not, Gleick’s motives seem pretty straightforward. [TO CLARIFY: I DON’T QUESTION DR. GLEICK’S MOTIVATIONS OR FUNDING, BUT HIS BOARD IS ALL GREEN – WL].

    We here at the DNP think Gleick is just expressing a political opinion held by many people, which he certainly has every right to do. And as a pragmatist, he understands that there is little political will to spend the kind of money Lusvardi’s position would entail if implemented. Especially given the many competing claims for that money.
    To his credit, Mr. Lusvardi cites some data that call into question some of Gleick’s numbers on water use and other assertions. And since we have used some of the myths Lusvardi calls into question, we thought it would be fair to give him an airing.

    Lusvardi’s rebuttal is broken down into the following categories, listed below with commentary:

    Mythical “Not Enough Water”
Gleick: Not enough water to go around
Lusvardi: The problem is capture, storage and treatment
DNP: $$$

    Mythical Eight Fold Water Rights
Gleick: Eight times as many water rights given away as there is water available
Lusvardi: (via Mike Wade) Multiple permits for the same water only mean that we are efficiently using it over and over again.
DNP: Lusvardi’s and Wade’s argument seems truthier

    Mythical 75 percent of water goes to agriculture
Gleick: Does not mention this here, and a quick search finds that it is the PPIC who most recently made this claim
Lusvardi: Cites DWR guys who says it’s more like 43%
DNP: Always enjoy reading people use numbers in support of their position. Very important in the political theatre. Though we are open to more knowledge on this, for now, Lusvardi’s DWR guy makes his claim seem truthier.

    Mythical claim that drought was good for agriculture
Gleick: Cal agriculture broke all $$ records during drought
Lusvardi: West side farmers (or, as he puts it, “one California valley”) didn’t participate enough in the windfall.
DNP: Take west side farmland out of production. It is toxic, literally and politically. Pay them off.

    Mythical No More Money for Large Water Projects
Gleick: No money, no political will, no environmentally acceptable sites for dams, etc.
Lusvardi: $18.7B in water bonds gone to fund greenbelts and open space in wealthy northern California enclaves.
DNP: We could be wrong, but seem to recall that Mr. Lusvardi lives in Pasadena, or near there.

    Mythical species extinction
Gleick: Driving fish, plants and other wildlife to extinction
. Lusvardi: Value the downstream habitats of rose gardens, lawns and warm water fish. 
DNP: Salmon tastes much better than catfish. And by the way, environmental and scientific agendas are also cultural and political.

Gleick: There isn’t enough water to go around
Lusvardi: Property rights
DNP: Myths are incredibly powerful stories

Gleick: There isn’t enough water to go around
Lusvardi: Yes there is, if we spend tens of billions to capture,
    store and treat it—and return to the political culture of the 1940s.
DNP: Population growth intensifies scarcity issues. Thoughtful people develop complex views, and generally understand the difference between what the world is, and what they wish it to be.

    Reply this comment
  9. John Bass
    John Bass 6 April, 2011, 15:47

    Hi Wayne,

    I am not sure about your characterization of my review of your review as “mostly correct.”

    I remain convinced by the water rights holder case you and Mike Wade make, but am now less so about the 75% figure, given that you and Dr. Hanak cite the same sources (DWR) but get different numbers. I’ve elaborated at my website in response to you, and perhaps you can clarify. Like I wrote, I enjoy reading how people use numbers to support their conclusions.

    Other conclusions you make seem to be more in the realm of ideological difference (you might say the cultural and political) than they are of numbers. In those cases it seems to me to be more a question of what one prefers than what one knows.

    But anyway…

    Also, as I hope anyone who carefully looks at the content of my website would understand, I am most definitely not a Delta preservationist.

    Reply this comment
  10. Wayne Lusvardi
    Wayne Lusvardi 6 April, 2011, 19:07

    Reply to JLund

    Here is the email from Dr. Hanak at PPIC where she states she got the 75% figure from DWR. She also provides a link to a PPIC publication:

    Thanks for your interest in our work. You can find a more detailed discussion of this information in chapter 2 of our recent report, Managing California’s Water: From Conflict to Reconciliation (available at: The original data is from the Department of Water Resources. Please let me know if you have any other questions.

    Reply this comment
  11. J Lund
    J Lund 6 April, 2011, 20:47

    From an economic point of view, there is more of a shortage of cheap water than there is a shortage of water. As a friend once noted, “There is a shortage of sports cars, I don’t have one.”

    You can get roughly 75% of human water use in agriculture being agricultural in several ways, some from DWR and others from reading reports by local agencies and backing out water use from pretty well-understood fundamentals (like crop net water use rates, acres of crops, populations, and urban per-capita use rates). The numbers vary a bit with your assumptions, of course, but pretty much any reasonable estimate shows agriculture being the largest human use of water in California, by a fair bit. Many such estimates are a bit squishy, which is not surprising, but they provide some insights anyway.

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