Major Economic Resources of California's Geology

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

California's prosperity is due, in part, to the wealth of geological resources available. This includes the availability of water supplies, mineral deposits, petroleum, metal, and even tourism revenue generated by the state's geological features.


We all know California is a large state. It's 163,707 square miles, making it the third-largest state behind Alaska and Texas. We also know it has a lot of people. In fact, with a population of more than 37 million, it is the most populous state in the country.

What you might not know is that California's economy is so diverse and successful that it counts as the eighth-largest economy in the world! Yes, that's comparing just California to every other state and all the other countries in the world.

So, what makes California such a wealthy state besides having so much land and so many people?

California's land is more than just space; the state is rich with mineral wealth, petroleum, and other geological resources. You've heard about the Gold Rush that helped bring so many people out west, but gold is just one resource.


While we normally think of just rocks when we hear about geology, water must also be included. Not only does flowing water help shape rock formations, but water fills spaces under the ground, flowing along beneath our feet in aquifers. For California, water plays a major part in the economy.

Irrigation helps California to be one of the largest agricultural-producing states.

The state is one of the leading agricultural producers in the world, and we all know that crops need water. Unfortunately, most of the state's water falls in the northern third, while most of the people and farmland are found in the southern two-thirds of the state. For these farmers to make use of the soil and ample sunlight, they need to find water for the fields. One source comes from the groundwater in the aquifers. For the rest, the state uses a series of pipelines called aqueducts and dams with reservoirs.


After discovering oil below California's surface, it seemed like a second Gold Rush as prospectors and petroleum companies raced to take the reserves. By 1903, there were 3,000 wells pumping oil from the ground. California became the largest source of oil in the nation until Texas overtook them in 1936. Today they are third behind Texas and North Dakota. Still, there are six major oilfields in the state still operating today: Wilmington, Midway-Sunset, Huntington Beach, Kern River, Ventura, and Elk Hills.

Industrial Minerals

You might not often think about the rocks and mineral products used for industrial purposes, but all those rocks, sand, cement, boron, and crushed stones add up to big bucks. In fact, sand and gravel alone made $1.29 billion in 2014, with cement coming in second with $879 million that year. California's Death Valley is the largest reserve of borate found anywhere in the world. There is a lot of money to be made in rocks.


Gold is still the No. 1 metal extracted from California, composing over 99 percent of all the metal extraction statewide. However, the actual volume of that extraction is smaller than you might imagine, with around 90 percent coming from a single mine in Imperial County. The annual yield is usually only around 150,000 ounces, but with gold prices, this results in adding between $150 million and $200 million to California's economy each year. Some silver is produced as a byproduct of gold extraction and purification, but this only accounts for 0.2% of metal extraction for the state. Even less common is iron ore, which is occasionally extracted during refinement of other mineral products.

Gold is the primary metal product in California.
gold nugget

Geological Formations

We can't forget that geological wealth and resources don't just include what can be extracted, sold, or used to make something else; they also include the landscape itself.


With mountains throughout the state and cold enough weather, especially in Northern California, to support ski resorts, the industry brings in hundreds of millions of dollars every year. A recent study on just the resorts located in the Lake Tahoe area revealed that those nine facilities added $564 million to the local economy during the 2013-14 ski season.

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