Regulatory Alchemy: How Water Becomes Money in the California Desert

Authors: Julia Sizek*, University of California, Berkeley
Topics: Legal Geography, Cultural and Political Ecology, Water Resources and Hydrology
Keywords: water, regulations, California, CEQA, nature
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/10/2021
Start / End Time: 1:30 PM / 2:45 PM
Room: Virtual 40
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In the California desert, a proposed water project will take water from an aquifer to the California coast via pipeline. The project--both unpopular among desert dwellers and seemingly uneconomical for its investors--still survives, even after multiple failed iterations and more than thirty years of proposals. In this paper, I examine the profit model of the Cadiz, the project proponent, through understanding the legal and regulatory processes that underlie their project permitting.

The question of how this project stays alive, I argue, is related to what I call regulatory alchemy, how Cadiz plans to make money at the intersection of regulatory law and understandings of natural processes themselves as (mis)regulated by nature. This question is a regulatory one in two senses: first, regulatory inasmuch as the limits of action are constrained by regulatory processes like Securities and Exchange Commission filings and the California Environmental Quality Act; second, regulatory in that Cadiz locates their profits in a failure of self-regulating nature (the water cycle) that they will fix through engineering. I examine these processes not only to emphasize the intersection of critical legal geography and political economy (see Andrews and McCarthy 2014, Kay 2018), but to understand how regulatory processes become the conditions of profit-making.

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