That’s not actually true; California, especially the portion from San Francisco south, has been a desert for thousands of years, but the state’s policies on water use are a primary source of its current woes.
This is part of it: The scorching of California
For 50 years, the state transferred surface water from northern California to the Central Valley through the California State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project. Given these vast and ambitious initiatives, Californians didn’t worry much about the occasional one- or two-year drought or the steady growth in population. The postwar, can-do mentality resulted in a brilliantly engineered water system, far ahead of its time, that brought canal water daily from the 30 percent of the state where rain and snow were plentiful—mostly north of Sacramento as well as from the Sierra Nevada Mountains—to the lower, western, and warmer 70 percent of the state, where people preferred to work, farm, and live…..
Just as California’s freeways were designed to grow to meet increased traffic, the state’s vast water projects were engineered to expand with the population. Many assumed that the state would finish planned additions to the California State Water Project and its ancillaries. But in the 1960s and early 1970s, no one anticipated that the then-nascent environmental movement would one day go to court to stop most new dam construction, including the 14,000-acre Sites Reservoir on the Sacramento River near Maxwell; the Los Banos Grandes facility, along a section of the California Aqueduct in Merced County; and the Temperance Flat Reservoir, above Millerton Lake north of Fresno. Had the gigantic Klamath River diversion project not likewise been canceled in the 1970s, the resulting Aw Paw reservoir would have been the state’s largest man-made reservoir. At two-thirds the size of Lake Mead, it might have stored 15 million acre-feet of water, enough to supply San Francisco for 30 years. California’s water-storage capacity would be nearly double what it is today had these plans come to fruition. It was just as difficult to imagine that environmentalists would try to divert contracted irrigation and municipal water from already-established reservoirs. Yet they did just that, and subsequently moved to freeze California’s water-storage resources at 1970s capacities.
All the while, the Green activists remained blissfully unconcerned about the vast immigration into California from Latin America and Mexico that would help double the state’s population in just four decades, to 40 million. Had population growth remained static, perhaps California could have lived with partially finished water projects. The state might also have been able to restore the flow of scenic rivers from the mountains to the sea, maintained a robust agribusiness sector, and even survived a four- or five-year drought. But if California continues to block new construction of the State Water Project as well as additions to local and federal water-storage infrastructure, officials must halve California’s population, or shut down the 5 million acres of irrigated crops on the Central Valley’s west side, or cut back municipal water usage in a way never before done in the United States…..
Water is to California as coal is to Kentucky—yet its use is being curtailed by those least affected, if affected at all, by the consequences of their advocacy. But environmentalists, who for 40 years worked to undermine the prudent expansion of the state’s water infrastructure, have a rendezvous with those consequences soon. No reservoir water is left for them to divert—none for the reintroduction of their pet salmon, none for the Delta smelt. Their one hope is to claim possession of the water in the ground once they’ve exhausted what was above it. Redistribution, not expansion of supplies, is the liberal creed for water, just as it is for wealth.
California’s problem is not that it doesn’t have enough water to support its population. Rather, the problem is that its population uses more water than it has to. And the reason people do this is that water in California is seriously underpriced, as Marginal Revolution’s Alex Tabarrok notes. While the new emergency rules do include provisions for local utilities to raise rates, that would still leave water in the state ludicrously mispriced. According to Tabarrok, the average household in San Diego pays less than 80 cents a day for the 150 gallons of water it uses. This is less than my two-person household pays for considerably less water usage, in an area where rainfall is so plentiful that the neighborhood next door to me has a recurrent flooding problem.
The country as a whole will survive: we’ll import more vegetables from Mexico, California farmers will return to the mid-west, and California will revert to its natural state. pleasing the environmentalists no end, until they, too have to leave. One question I haven’t seen addressed yet is the fate of the state’s immigrant farm workers; will they go back south of the border when there are no more jobs, or migrate to the cities to add to the welfare rolls? I guess we’ll find out.