«© 2006 William Blomquist ABSTRACT Water resources must be governed before they can be managed, and the crafting of governance institutions is an ...»
Crafting Water Constitutions in California
© 2006 William Blomquist
Water resources must be governed before they can be managed, and the crafting of
governance institutions is an ongoing challenge of the human condition. Institutional
artisanship requires the availability of tools for institutional design and creation, and a
reflective understanding of the use of those tools. Yet neither the tools nor the understanding exist in their entirety before institutional artisans attempt their craft: the tools at hand must be adapted to new purposes, and skill in their use must be learned along the way. Errors are inevitable, but successes are possible. These insights, drawn from Vincent Ostrom’s work on understanding human action, are applied in this paper to the development of institutional arrangements for the management of water resources in California.
Water management requires a clear understanding of the diverse ways in which collective efforts can be organized to construct institutions to solve problems. Vincent Ostrom’s work to date has aided and encouraged scholars from several disciplines to see the development of institutions—including the construction of constitutions—in many settings besides the well-known formal documents of central governments. His work has also underscored the capabilities and limitations of fallible human beings as they engage in the tasks of constitution making. Vincent and Elinor Ostrom have drawn many scholars’ attention to the management of water resources as an exercise in individual and joint action in the development and maintenance of institutions. As Vincent Ostrom (1962: 450) has pointed out, "Few areas... offer a richer variety of organizational patterns and institutional arrangements than the water resource arena."
The institutional arrangements for governing and managing water resources in California have emerged through problem-solving and constitution-making processes that required considerable investments in information gathering and arenas for communication and deliberation. This paper summarizes prior research by the author (Blomquist 1992) on how boundedly rational, fallible water users in California formed those institutional arrangement—creating constitutions, so to speak, for a number of California’s river and groundwater basins.
These processes of institutional design and development were marked by innovation, adaptation, learning, and entrepreneurial skill. The processes were facilitated by the freedom of individuals to form associations and the experience they gained in doing so, the home rule tradition of the State of California with respect to the formation and activities of local governments, and the availabilityof courts with equity jurisdiction.
The processes were constrained by California water law, by the physical characteristics of the groundwater basins and what they could and could not do in the way of providing the desired supplies, by the southern California climate, by the fact that the existing political jurisdictions did not necessarily corresponding to the boundaries of natural physical systems, by existing or simultaneously developing arrangements for land use and wastewater collection and discharge, by state and federal projects such as the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project, and by the patterns of past institutional development. As is usually the case in institutional creation, some problems emerged in the wake of efforts to solve others, and the options that were available at a given moment were largely the result of choices made in the past.
The governance systems and management organizations that were produced by these processes were put together deliberately, and are composed of myriad organizations and inter-organizational arrangements and rules to govern the behavior of water users. They are, in other words, polycentric. One could argue that at least as much of social behavior is conducted in polycentric systems such as associations, covenants, contracts, and interorganizational arrangements as in either markets or hierarchies. Normatively, polycentricity offers better prospects for yielding self-governing systems that match the capabilities of human beings (who are neither automatons nor omniscients).
We still know too little about polycentric structures: how they develop, how they are organized, and how they perform. But we know more than we would have without the work of Vincent Ostrom, and we know more about which questions to ask and what methods to apply as we work to understand them further. Tocqueville urged humankind to develop a "new science of politics" based on a "science of association" in order to understand the governance of democratic societies, and the kinds of questions we ask as a result of Vincent Ostrom’s influence have taken us far in the development of those sciences.
Institutional arrangements are designed, redesigned, adapted, and eliminated over time as part of a problem-solving process. They can be understood in terms of deliberate choices made within constraints by human beings with limited capabilities in a changeable world. The institutional arrangements for managing groundwater and river basins in California evolved from processes of human problem solving over a number of years.
* * * Development of Water Problems and Organizations in Southern California to the 1930s We begin in the valley of the San Gabriel River in Southern California. The boom of the 1880s triggered disputes over rights to surface water supplies. Conflict over access to waters of the San Gabriel River continued until several prominent valley men negotiated an agreement known as the Compromise of 1889. The compromise divided the San Gabriel River water among its claimants, and established the San Gabriel River Water Committee (the "Committee of Nine"). The committee was composed of representatives of the disputing claimants and administered the provisions of the Compromise of 1889, maintaining a self-governing system along the river for several decades.
The real-estate boom exhausted itself in the late 1880s and collapsed. Southern California continued to add new residents, but the pace of growth cooled substantially.
During this period, some mutual water companies and irrigation districts that had developed surface water ditches and canals failed during the 1890s, and a drought set in during the decade that dried up streams in several locations. Groundwater wells became vital to the survival of many farmers and communities, and as early as 1904 groundwater declines were being documented in official reports.
Water users responded to the drought in various ways. Los Angeles municipalized its water-supply system, taking it back from the Los Angeles Water Company in 1902, and continued legal actions against upstream pumpers and diverters. In the San Gabriel Valley, Pasadena began spreading water at the mouth of Arroyo Seco canyon. In the Santa Ana River watershed, water users in the northwest portion of Chino Basin began to spread San Antonio Creek waters in 1895 and organized the Pomona Valley Protective Association to oversee the activity. The Gage Canal Company, and the East Lugonia Mutual, San Antonio, Etiwanda, Cucamonga, and Fontana Union water companies began similar operations in 1903 (Scott 1977: 222). On the Coastal Plain, the Irvine Ranch Company began spreading water from Santiago Creek for storage in 1896.
After the drought ended, the development of water management schemes and of water governance institutions continued. Complementarities were identified and exploited between the desire for greater water retention and the need for improved flood control. For example, in 1908 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rechanneled the Santa Ana River on the Orange County Coastal Plain in an attempt to reduce future flood damage. In June 1909, the Tri-Counties Water Conservation Association (Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino counties) was formed to attempt surface water retention and groundwater replenishment on a basin-wide scale in the Santa Ana River watershed, authorizing the construction of a dam and diversion canal on the river, and spreading operations were under way by 1911. After a destructive flood in 1914, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors sought approval from the state to create a flood control district. The Los Angeles County Flood Control District was created in 1915 and soon undertook several projects to rechannel and control the flows of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers, as well as the Rio Hondo and some of the tributary streams in the county.
These structures were incorporated into replenishment and storage operations that began shortly afterward.
In the San Gabriel Valley, Pasadena had been spreading water at the mouth of Arroyo Seco canyon since the drought years of 1895-1904, recharging the Raymond Basin from which the city drew most of its municipal water supply. Observing the Los Angeles experiment with importing water, Pasadena's leaders were convinced that an outside water source was a desirable means to assure future growth. If Los Angeles could bring water from the Owens Valley to the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena would bring water to the San Gabriel Valley from some similarly underdeveloped source on the other side of the mountains. In 1920, the city of Pasadena proposed to divert water from the headwaters of the Mojave River and transport that water over the San Gabriel Mountains for municipal use in the Raymond Basin. Pasadena filed an application with the California Division of Water Rights, but the application was denied after land and water companies, irrigation districts, and farming associations in the Mojave River area organized and opposed the move.
Pasadena's forays in search of additional water supplies were motivated by necessity as well as invention. By the mid-1920s, another dry cycle was underway in southern California, which lasted through 1937. The dry period was not as severe from year to year as the 1895-1904 drought, but it presented serious water-supply problems nevertheless, since three times as much acreage was developed and in need of regular water service as had been under use in 1904.
New deep-well turbine pumps could extract larger quantities of water more rapidly and from greater depths than the mechanical pumps of the late 1800s. They made it possible to develop more acreage, but increased the overall draft on groundwater supplies. In 1912, the Southern California Edison Company had to abandon a well at Redondo Beach because it was pulling salty water. By the late 1920s, it was apparent that the Redondo Beach occurrence had been a warning, not a fluke. Salt-water intrusion, declining water levels, and vacant groundwater storage capacity appeared in report after report through the 1920s and 1930s.
Works were constructed along the San Gabriel and Santa Ana Rivers and all tributary creeks and washes with the intention of keeping every drop that fell from the sky or trickled down the side of a hill or mountain from reaching the ocean without first having been caught, diverted, spread, sunk underground, pumped out for use on the land and preferably returned underground for reuse downstream. Additional water users' organizations, such as the San Gabriel Water Spreading Corporation, the San Gabriel Valley Protective Association, and the Chino Basin Protective Association formed during this period. These groups added their efforts to those of the Tri-Counties Water Conservation Association in the Santa Ana River watershed, the Los Angeles County Flood Control District in the San Gabriel River watershed, and the city of Los Angeles in the Los Angeles River watershed.
Other efforts were focused on bringing more water to the region. In 1923, at the suggestion of William Mulholland, the local hero of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power conducted preliminary studies of the possibility of constructing an aqueduct across the desert to the Colorado River. In 1924, Los Angeles filed for and was granted rights to 1,500 cubic feet per second of Colorado River water. This time, however -- for a variety of reasons that included the enormous expense of the undertaking, the amount of supplemental water potentially available, and the fact that the water supply situation of other southern California cities was even more precarious than that of Los Angeles -- the city decided not to go it alone. Such a project could be financed and operated by a new public organization, a unit of local government that would itself be composed of local governments.