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Should California have a Water Czar?

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By Mark Lubell - Posted on 20 May 2011

Should California have a Water Czar? Everybody would agree that California water management is complex and chaotic with many different actors making decisions in many different policy venues, often ignoring how their welfare is interdependent, and therefore missing out on opportunities for mutual gains and avoiding mutual costs. For the last two decades in California, along with many other places in the US and internationally, the solution to this chaos was the implementation of collaborative watershed management, or integrated regional water management, or whatever synonym you prefer. The theory is that by getting all the stakeholders together to jointly make water management decisions, they are able to recognize interdependence and make mutually benficial decisions. "Getting better together", "the greatest good, for the greatest number, for the longest time", "co-equal goals", and all that. The sentiments reflect what I also think most people would agree is the prime goal of water management: the efficient and equitable allocation of ecosystem services from watersheds, which includes everything from water supply to biodiversity.

While the collaborative approach is nice in theory and has lots of normative appeal from the perspective of democracy, its capacity to actually solve water problems has not been proven. Lots of people like it, but no research has conclusively demonstrated that it improves environmental outcomes. Of course it is hard to tell if it is better than some other approach, and it has probably made some incremental progress. But if you look at the most prominent and long-running examples of the collaborative approach in the US, such as CALFED, Chesapeake Bay, Everlades, and Columbia River, you will find serious environmental problems and conflict continue.

But it is easy to criticize the collaborative approach, or any policy for that matter. Solutions are harder, and most people are scratching their heads about what could be better than collaborative, integrated water management. Economists of course think that market-based approaches are a panacea but markets, while useful within limits, cannot solve everything for a number of reasons. Command-and-control has been thrown out as ineffective for diffuse problems like non-point source pollution and biodiversity protection. Voluntary incentives work only for a limited number of decisions.

But bear with me a moment, and let's throw out these quaint notions of cooperation and democracy and revisit the idea of command and control. What would happen if we gave all the power to a "Water Czar", who could make and enforce rules about water management and use throughout the state. Crazy! Nuts! I'll sue you! That is what is going through your mind, isn't it? Well, a Water Czar could end the chaos, if you accept certain assumptions. Don't worry though! These assumptions are mild and realistic (note sarcasm...). The Water Czar would have to have perfect information about local contexts and how the costs and benefits of water management are linked across the state. Proponents of regional approaches of course say that locals know best about local problems, and therefore water management authority must be decentralized. The Water Czar would have to be Wise, like Plato's "Guardians". Not only do they need to have good information, but they need to know how to use that information in light of complex hydrological, economic, and ecological processes. The Water Czar would have to be Just as well, in order to fairly incorporate the preferences of all water stakeholder instead of bowing to the will of any particular, powerful interest group. The Water Czar must not give into the temptation of corruption in return for water management favors.

Given the stringency of these assumptions, the debate is moot right? No it isn't, because California has recently attempted to centralize authority over water management through the creation of the Delta Stewardship Council. Many commentators (e.g.; Little Hoover Commission) criticized CALFED for the lack of authority to compel participating agencies to implement the Delta "record of decision". The legislative creation of the DSC in theory gives it the power to compel at least CA state agencies to comply with the hopefully-soon-to-be finished Delta Plan (http://deltacouncil.ca.gov/). Whether or not the legal powers of the DSC will ever be used, or if used, whether it will stand up to legal scrutiny, is still an open question. But while the DSC is certainly not the extreme Water Czar that I caricatured above, it is a movement in that direction and thus must be subject to the same questions. Does the DSC have enough information to make good decisions? Is it Wise? Is it Just? The capacity of the DSC to successfully improve California water issues and alleviate conflicts depends in part on the answers to these questions.

From the political science point of view, the interesting thing about these debates is that they are ancient and go back at least to Plato and Aristotle. These are the classic debates about decentralization versus centralization, and expertise versus democratic participation. In reality water management is constantly moving back and forth along these dimensions, according to many different political, economic, and environmental forces. Sustainable and adaptive water management requires striking the right balance, which is a very tricky business. Perhaps the Delta Stewardship Council brings in just enough of the Water Czar to improve things, or perhaps not.