Old Readings on California Water

by Jay Lund

1957_map.tiff 2

The California Water Plan. State Dept. of Water Resources, 1957

Today’s water struggles have deep roots.

In our shared summer confinement, we hopefully have some time for some deeper reading on California water.  Here is a small collection of older writings on California water, the youngest of which is still older than me.  Beyond historical interest, these early writings have useful perspectives on water problems today, in the future, and outside California.

These writings illustrate how a society of poor disorganized immigrants experienced abrupt climate change when they moved to California and had to change how they did agriculture, built cities and water systems, and organized water laws and institutions in a new (to them) climate and land.  We still struggle with this condition today, and will in the future.  California society is mostly much richer today, and somewhat more organized.

  1. Alexander, B.S., George H. Mendell, George Davidson (1873) Report of the Board of Commissioners on the Irrigation of the San Joaquin, Tulare, and Sacramento Valleys of the State of California, Washington: G.P.0. Report on irrigation development for the Central Valley, including a wonderful global survey of irrigation projects from around the world.
  2. Austin, Mary (1903), The Land of Little Rain, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, New York, 280 pp. (Text version) On water, life, cultures, landscape, and Native Americans in the Eastern Sierra/Owens Basin.  Includes some early water and irrigation management conflicts.  A very pleasant read.
  3. DWR (1930), California Water Plan, Division of Water Resources, California Department of Public Works, Sacramento, CA.  An excellent strategic presentation, reflecting more than a decade of systematic state studies and discussions, this plan during the Great Depression, shaped the CVP and SWP.  [This document seems to be no long available on a State of California web site.]
  4. Goldschmidt, Walter (1947). As You Sow: Three Studies in the Social Consequences of Agribusiness. Montclair, N.J: Allanheld, Osmun and Co. Publishers, Inc. Excellent readable early work on the anthropology and sociology of rural irrigation-based communities in the Tulare basin – many issues and findings remain relevant.  See recent blog post on this one.
  5. Montgomery, Mary and Marion Clawson (1946), History of Legislation and Policy Formation of the Central Valley Project, United States Department of Agriculture Bureau of Agricultural Economics, Berkeley, CA, March, 264 pp. An excellent history of the early CVP, from a state water project to a federal water project, with struggles over public versus private interests, state projects to supplement declining groundwater and expand irrigated area, and the state’s struggles to regain control of the CVP (while retaining federal funding). [So far, you need to visit a library for this one.]
  6. Banks, Harvey (1953), “Utilization of Underground Storage Reservoirs,” Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Vol. 118, No. 1, January, pp. 220-234. One of the State Water Project’s main engineers began with excellent analyses and discussions of groundwater.
  7. DWR (1957), The California Water Plan, Bulletin No. 3. Sacramento, California. California Department of Water Resources, May, 1957. This plan could have the subtitle – leave no valley undammed, and set the direction of state water planning until 1983.  [This document seems to be no long available on a State of California web site.]

Many excellent writings on California water are more than 50 years old (pre-dating the popular Cadillac Desert!).

Please suggest additional writings in the comments section, including a web link where available.

Read old to stay sharp.

Jay Lund is a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California – Davis.

About jaylund

Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Director, Center for Watershed Sciences University of California - Davis
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5 Responses to Old Readings on California Water

  1. Bill Blomquist says:

    What fun — thanks, Jay, for these new leads on old reads. Here are a couple more:
    Samuel C. Wiel, “Need of Unified Law for Surface and Underground Water.” Southern California Law Review. Vol. 2, No. 4 (April 1929), pp. 358-369. A nice reminder of how long this argument has been made.
    Hugh W. Ferrier, “Administration of Water Rights in California.” California Law Review. Vol. 44, No. 5 (December 1956), pp. 833-852. A contemporaneous review of major legislation and court decisions of the first half of the 20th century.

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  2. Christine Wallis says:

    Battling the Inland Sea by Robert Kelley

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  3. Robert Kimberling says:

    Although they are not old writings, these books are about California water in earlier times:
    “Ruling the Waters; California’s Kern River, the Environment, and the Making of Western Water Law” — Douglas R. Littlefield (University of Oklahoma Press:Norman; 2020). It covers the battle between Charles Lux and James Ben Ali Haggin for control of the waters of the Kern River and Tulare Lake and the 1886 Supreme Court case that is the basis of much of California water law.

    “The King of California – J. G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire” — Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman (Public Affairs, Perseus Books Group: 2003). The story of how the Boswells drained Tulare Lake and became the world’s largest cotton farmers.

    “The Dreamt Land; Chasing Water and Dust Across California” — Mark Arax (Alfred A. Knopf; 2019). Kind of an updated “Cadillac Desert”.

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  4. B. Teeter says:

    The 1957 California water plan is available at the Internet Archive

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