The Nature of Understanding California Water – a Further Perspective

The Nature of Understanding California Water – a Further Perspective

by Obi Kaufmann

I am writing this essay in May 2019 – the twelfth rainiest May in Northern California since record keeping began in 1849, and the Sierra Snowpack is at about 200% normal. Most of the State Water Project’s reservoirs are full and I am about to embark on tour to support my new book: The State of Water, Understanding California’s most Precious Resource. The book is going to be in bookstores across California on June 1st, and I can’t help but wonder what audience reaction might have been like if, as in more years than not, this May had little or no statewide precipitation at all.

Obi Kaufmann begins a book tour supporting his latest work on Sunday, June 2nd, 2019 in Truckee, California

The first word of the subtitle of my book is Understanding, and what is actually being understood is key to appreciating my perspective. This is not a comprehensive survey. This is not a textbook. The focus of my book is not necessarily, human usage at all. Although calculating surface storage in the first half of the 21st century and extrapolating future usage across sectors is a large bit of the information presented, I am more interested in the human relationship to water in California – and that is the Understanding I am talking about and wish to investigate further. The State of Water is not wholly, an ecological investigation, nor is it void of political inclination. Although I wrote this book was to be as resilient as it could be to political ebb and flow, the people of California take water very personally, as they should.

The following bullet points reflect, what I see are relevant notes in any discussion of contemporary, Californian, water-usage but have been largely excluded from the book. For mainly, editorial reasons I felt that they all either fall outside of this book’s concise purview, will be addressed in a future book, or deal mainly with human power structures and belong in a textbook about such things. I’ve come up with this list for two reasons: 1, to respect my evolving relationship with this book itself and its subject, and 2, to anticipate audience interaction and maybe preemptively address some concerns. Talking about water can be stressful – I hear the question often: should we be worried about water? Instead of tackling the question like a journalist or a politician, I would like to answer the question as a fellow member of your community. To do so, I would need to ask who is the we in the question? And on a deeper, philosophical level, I would need to ask what is the value of worry? Perhaps the prescription to alleviate worry is understanding. See how that word keeps popping up?



Other than its persistent aridity, the other two, potentially major catastrophes facing our modern society in California are our more-common, mega-wildland fires and climate breakdown. Although I use climate change in the book, I am moving to calling this phenomenon, climate breakdown. I believe it is a stronger way of describing the effects of average, atmospheric temperature rise than is climate change. Climate breakdown carries more political meaning with its sense of palpable, virulent unpredictability.

California has had two seasons this year: rain & fire. To understand fire, it is important to understand water. In the State of Water, I address climate breakdown in regard to models predicting water storage capacity, but I don’t mention it in regard to fire. Does more rain mean more fire danger? While it is true that rain means more potential fuel, the moisture content of the forests, across all ecographies in both the flora and the soil, is higher and thus it turns out that there is statistically less chance of mega-fires in years such as this one. I will dedicate a book’s worth of research to this subject: The State of Fire, Understanding Where, How and Why California Burns will be published by HEYDAY BOOKS (fall 2021).


The State of Water does not dwell too long on money. Not because it is not important to understanding California Water, but because it is not interesting to me. If you are a dedicated student of California water policy as either an academic or a political interest, you must be versed in not only how the water flows, but how the money does as well. People and ecosystems are living and dying because of the economic notions of who pays for what. Water quality, water conveyance, water allocation, land subsidence, groundwater management and the future of the Central Valley’s industrial future all come together in a complex, scenario outside of the scope of The State of Water. Of course, aspects of these themes are addressed in the book, but only in how they affect the more-than-human world, my primary field of interest.

Problems of greed and generosity within human society, and how they relate to how money is spent is core to understanding how water moves and how it is available and how it is treated. With the scope of this book, I am woefully unable to tackle that story. For one example of the depth of this problem: according to the California State Water Control Board, more than 300 public water systems, most of which are in the Central Valley (and across the Mojave Desert) are serving unsafe drinking water. One million Californians every year are exposed to unsafe water. Governor Newsom wants to add a tax of $1 a month to urban water use to raise $100 million and update these systems. This is a very important issue, and I could point to fifty others, none of which I engage.


Although I am very critical of how our surface-water storage infrastructure is so massively, ecologically destructive and how it is quickly moving towards obsolescence, I am not anti-dam on principal. Because aquifers occur in many different, geologic substrates across the state and because different communities have different attitudes towards their underground-water resources, California will be unable to get out of the business of surface-water storage for the next century or so.

Because of a lack of funding and because of a thick, clay layer, municipalities in the southern, Central Valley have largely done a poor job managing their aquifers. By only withdrawing water and with little attention to recharge, these communities are unwisely using this water as a one-time spend. For decades, the community around San Jose has been building and monitoring the recharge of massive, percolation pools as a renewable source of underground-water storage and because of it, have now completely recovered from the massive drought that dominated the second decade of this century.


The State of Water is built around nine-examples of how California’s natural water courses are utilized, through human infrastructure to store and move water. The analysis of its impact on both the environmental and the human ecology of California is largely based on the physicality of diversions and not on the subtle, all-encompassing, chemical nature of pollution. How human industry (fracking for example), municipalities (non-point-source runoff), or society (plastics and atmospheric pollutants), is a larger system of influence than this book was ever designed to address.


Another huge set of topics that gets precious, little attention in The State of Water is alternative technologies. Each, individual technology deserves broad consideration in just how far their beneficial yield might carry us into the future. To list but a few: wastewater reclamation and recycling; solar shields on reservoirs; energy-efficient desalinization; porous concrete building materials and storm-water catchment devices.


In the year since I penned the first draft of The State of Water, we’ve elected a new governor and there have been some modifications to our water policy, with specific reference to surface-storage. Los Vaqueros dam in Contra Coast County is being raised to increase storage in its reservoir and Pacheco Pass Reservoir is going ahead with construction. There is a new push to build more off-stream reservoirs and because of it, Sites Reservoir (page 66 in The State of Water) may be going forward. An off-stream reservoir implies that it does impact water course inflow – it certainly will. Also, with the new governor, The California Water Fix and Eco-restore (page 84 in The State of Water) was been reduced by over half its designed, conveyance capacity.

In other local news, The Carmel River reroute around the San Clemente dam has been a huge success. The reservoir, silted-up and at the end of its useful life, has been bypassed and because of it, the steelhead are returning. This precedent marks a milestone for what I have called in other essays, the coming paradigm of restoration that we will see played out again and again as California wakes up to the power of conservation and value of our natural legacy.

As we consider 22nd century needs and look back on the ethical implications of what we built in the 20th century, 21st century California is faced with some big decisions. It is answering that call that compelled me to write this book. The State of Water attempts, if nothing else, to demonstrate the economic and ecological magic that conservation theory represents. For example, instead of building a dam, how about we use that money and encourage people to take replace their lawns (half of urban water use is outdoor landscaping) and to install low-flow toilets and washing machines. The magic of conservation makes good fiscal sense: Delta water is $400/acre-foot, conservation water is $100/acre-foot.

I wrote The State of Water, as what will be the second in a six book series exploring my journey to a fuller understanding of the natural forces that coalesce to define the natural world of California. The first book was the California Field Atlas. The third, fourth and fifth books will be the California Lands Trilogy: The Forests of California (spring 2020), The Coasts of California (fall 2020) and The Deserts of California (spring 2021). The final book will bookend The State of Water and be called The State of Fire; Where, How and Why California Burns (fall 2021). Although my recent writing reacts mainly to observations I’m making on anthropogenic climate breakdown and extractivist culture, I’m most-moved by resilient systems within adaptive cycles across ecographic regions and how they, like the organisms they provide habitat for, seem to operate as single, coherent entities, and perhaps should be respected as such.

I am not terribly interested in debating water policy; I want to talk about water-story. How do we save everything we want to save? I want to sensibly discuss nimble and efficient strategies across a whole portfolio of approaches. Although it is a season of rain we know that with anthropogenic, climate breakdown we will (perhaps counter-intuitively) see years of both increased aridity and we will see the increased frequency of seasons filled with deluge. I would like to suggest, as a final thought, that California’s Most Precious Resource that I would like to get a better understanding of, isn’t necessarily water but the quality of the character inside everyone of us to come together and decide what is best for our extended stewardship of this, most-beautiful of places.

to order The State of Water


to find Obi’s Book Tour schedule


Obi Kaufmann 05/26/2019