University of California

Is California's future hydraulically sustainable?


Richard E. Howitt

Author Affiliations

R.E. Howitt is Professor, Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics, UC Davis.

Publication Information

Hilgardia 54(2):10-15. DOI:10.3733/ca.v054n02p10. March 2000.

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The term “hydraulic society” describes the ancient cities and social systems that relied on irrigated agriculture, such as Egypt's Nile Valley. For 5,000 years, the annual cycle of floods replenished the Nile region's soil and nutrients, eliminating the need for complex canal systems such as those found in the Sumerian and Mesopotamian regions. California is the first hydraulic society that is rapidly developing into a postindustrial economy; this change will require the partial re-allocation of our water resources. California should attempt to move toward a decentralized, resilient “ancient Egyptian” model of water allocation rather than continue with a centralized but less responsive “Mesopotamian” model. A hydraulic society can be destabilized by drought conditions, degradation of water quality, and the inability of distribution systems to adapt to social or economic changes. Although hydraulic societies are ecologically unstable due to their modification and specialization of the ecosystem, changing the system of social feedback can compensate for this rigidity.


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Howitt R. 2000. Is California's future hydraulically sustainable?. Hilgardia 54(2):10-15. DOI:10.3733/ca.v054n02p10
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