Valuing California’s Water: A Social Science Perspective

In California, policy makers, practitioners, and researchers have contributed to a rising conversation on how best to value water, particularly in response to environmental and economic stresses. At stake in this conversation is not only how to value water, but how to understand, model, and communicate those values between groups. A retrospective review of the scholarly literature on California water as a natural, social, and political system shows that water has been valued primarily through economic or ecological categories. This dominant valuation is evident in water management practices, in the language and implementation of water policies and regulations, and in the research that is conducted on California’s water. While economic and ecological values of water are important, research and practice has also shown that water has a more diverse value profile. Practitioners and members of the public alike attach a wide spectrum of values and categories of value to water, and to the processes of managing water.

This paper defines historical, systemic values of growth, conservation, efficiency, and sustainability as they emerged at different points in California’s history of water management, and it considers how researchers and practitioners today share and balance contemporary understandings of these values alongside emergent values like equity and environmental justice. Building on this historical foundation, we explore some of the values and categories of value that policies, practices, and research on California water assume, perpetuate, marginalize, or exclude. We conclude by drawing on the broader social scientific literature on values and stakeholder engagement to suggest a broader perspective on values, which might enable water managers to engage a more diverse and inclusive valuation of water as part of their planning and policymaking processes.

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