California Water Primer

Resources to learn about water in California


Ten top readings

The following books and readings will provide a very good understanding of general water issues in California. We don't endorse everything they say, but most educated water wonks in California will have read most of them.

  1. Hundley, N. (2000), The Great Thirst, University of California Press - An excellent readable scolarly history of water in California.
  2. Kelley, Robert (1989), Battling the Inland Sea, University of California Press - An excellent readable history of flood management for the Sacramento Valley with ongoing relevance, detailing the evolution of water management technology and institutions for this long-standing and continuing problem.
  3. Pisani, Donald (1984), From the Family Farm to Agribusiness: The Irrigation Crusade in California, 1850-1931, University of California Press - History of how California's water management institutions developed.
  4. PPIC and UC Davis (2007), Envisioning Futures for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, Public Policy Institute of California, San Francisco, CA - A major strategic synthesis of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and its role in California's water system.
  5. Blomquist, William (1992), Dividing the Waters: Governing Groundwater in Southern California, ICS Press, San Francisco, CA, 415 pp. - An excellent book on groundwater management and law in California.
  6. Engineers and Irrigation: Report of the Board of Commissioners on the Irrigation of the San Joaquin, Tulare, and Sacramento Valleys of the State of California, 1873 - The first California water plan, laying out early thinking on how to develop irrigation for California, which is currently about 70% of all consumptive water use.  Has a wonderful map of the Central Valley's waterscape in 1873.  Available from several online and retail sources.
  7. 1919 California Water Plan (Marshall Plan) - This plan, written by a retired USGS employee who had worked out of the University of California provides the strategy ultimately employed for most of California's water system.  This plan is very short.
  8. 1930 California Water Plan (5MB, pdf), Division of Water Resources, California Department of Public Works - The first official statewide water plan.  Inability of the State to sell bonds to support this plan during the Great Depression let to Federal development of this plan, with modifications, as the Central Valley Project.  This original plan had the San Joaquin River being run backwards (upstream) during the irrigation season.  This plan was supported by several other fine reports for this era, including many on the Delta. 
  9. 1957 California Water Plan, California Department of Water Resources - This was the foundation of the State Water Project.  The plan went well into the future and included plans to eventually dam every major river in California.  Very thorough and quite imaginative.
  10. California Water Plan Updates, California Department of Water Resources - These State of California water plans are nominal "updates" to the 1957 plan.  They have a curious history.  The more recent ones contain nice summaries of current water problems.

Other statewide water plan ideas

Other good readings

  • Draper, A.J., M.W. Jenkins, K.W. Kirby, J.R. Lund, and R.E. Howitt (2003), “Economic-Engineering Optimization for California Water Management,” Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management, Vol. 129, No. 3, May, pp. 155-164.
  • Israel, Morris S. and Jay R. Lund, "Recent California Water Transfers: Implications for Water Management,"Natural Resources Journal, Vol. 35, pp. 1-32, Winter, 1995.
  • Kahrl, William L. (1982), Water and Power: The Conflict over Los Angeles' Water Supply in the Owens Valley, University of California Press, 583 pp.
  • Mount, Jeffrey F. (1995), California Rivers and Streams: The Conflict Between Fluvial Process and Land Use, University of California Press.
  • Moyle, Peter B. (2002), Inland Fishes of California, University of California Press, 517 pp.
  • Walker, R.A. and M.J. Williams (1982), “Water from Power: Water Supply and Regional Growth in the Santa Clara Valley,” Economic Geography, Vol. 58, No. 2 (April), pp. 95-119.
  • White, Gilbert F. (1969), Strategies of American Water Management, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 155 pp.
  • Worster, Donald (1985), Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity & the Growth of the American West, Pantheon Books, New York, 402 pp.

Other great online sources on California water


Some sources of interest to students

Integrated analysis of water problems of California

This is where people have done the numbers and economics.

Integrated analysis of California's statewide water supply system - CALVIN, a large-scale economic-engineering optimization model for California (using HEC-PRM), including applications to integrated water management, climate warming, severe and sustained drought (modeled after a severe paleodrought), restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley (see CALVIN and Tom Philp's Hetch Hetchy Pulitzer Prize 2005), the Delta, water marketing, conjunctive use of ground and surface waters, and transboundary issues on the Colorado River.  Schematic of California's Water Supply System (in MS-Excel Format) (updated 2007) and PDF Format (2 pp. print-out) (2001)

Water-related graduate programs at UC Davis

No campus in the world has as diverse and deep water expertise and capabilities, especially related to water in California (even if we say so ourselves).

Class Resources