Is Population to Blame for the Drought?


The current drought has resurrected–and put a fine point on–the long simmering debate about the pluses and minuses of California’s population growth.  Is growth the problem in regards to water or do we just need better management?  This question could also be asked about another serious economic issue for California–housing supply and affordability.

According to Edwin Pattison, general manager of the Mountain House Community Services District, “When you increase a population significantly, you reach a point of what’s called ‘demand hardening,’ and you cannot conserve your way out of a situation where there’s just too many people and overcommitment of demand across the spectrum.”

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According to the California Department of Finance, by 2060 the state’s population will grow from  39 million people now to more than 51 million.

Californians for Population Stabilization want to blame the drought on immigration, “Virtually all of California’s population growth is from immigration. Let’s slow immigration and save some California for tomorrow.”  This reflects the public’s and economists’ mixed feelings about immigration’s effect on the economy, largely driven by the uncertainty-and subjectivity of-tallying up net gains/losses and the sorting out winners and losers.

“It’s totally the wrong question,” said Dowell Myers, a USC demography professor. “Without immigrants, California would be dead as a doornail. We don’t have enough children right now as it is to replace the workforce and the tax base … when Californians retire.”

Similarly, according to Heather Cooley of the Pacific Institute, the challenge is not the size of the population, but “how we develop, and the reality is we can be developing a lot better.”  Southern California water consumption has remained flat for 15 years, despite population growth.

“The notion that there’s too many people here is frankly absurd,” asserts Richard Sybert (former director of Gov. Wilson’s office of planning and research}.  “It’s frankly not borne out by the numbers … You could halve the population here – say we have 20 million instead of 40 million – and there would still be a drought.”

Since agriculture accounts for 80% of California water use, the solution could be a small shift of water from farm to urban uses according to Gregory Weber of the California Urban Water Conservation Council.  “I think there’s plenty of room for California to grow,” Weber said. “How it should grow, how big it should grow, these are I think some of the major pressing questions that are facing the state today.”

So is the key better growth management, better water management, or both?

The California Water Blog describes How To Manage Drought with five key prescriptions for better water management:

  • Get inside consumers’ heads – shift from engineering solutions to understanding human behavior.
  • Increase role of water markets – increased use of water transfers “would introduce further flexibility in managing water resources.”
  • Tiered water pricing works – consumers respond to higher prices.
  • Keep closer tabs on crop water use – use better water-use tracking and estimation.
  • Monitor and manage our groundwater – excessive groundwater pumping in dry years must be replenished in wet years.

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