How California seriously messed up its drought problem

Who else but Mark Twain could have said, "Whiskey is for drinkin'.  Water is for fightin'"?

A few years after the Civil War, a one-armed veteran of the conflict did exhaustive explorations of the arid West.  John Wesley Powel is credited with nailing down the difference between the eastern U.S. and the drought-prone west.

This leads us to a tale of two cities: Los Angeles and San Francisco.  At the beginning of the 20th century, both relied on well water to sustain their populations.  And both had ambitious plans to build aqueducts to import snow melt from the fairly distant Sierra Nevada mountains.  It was then that renowned naturalist John Muir formed the Sierra Club to fight the San Francisco project.  He was successful only in delaying the building of the O'Shaughnessy Dam that formed the Hetch Hetchy reservoir.  That delay allowed William Mulholland to be first by completing the Los Angeles–Owens Valley aqueduct in 1913.  When the gate releasing the water opened, Mulholland famously said, "Here it is.  Take it."  And thus, Los Angeles eclipsed San Francisco as the primate city of California.

In order for the L.A. city fathers to pass the construction bond for the aqueduct, they had to play up a major drought in the 1880s.  The bond was passed, but the drought was a fiction...that wasn't exposed until the late 1970s by Scot Stine, at that time a graduate student at U.C. Berkeley.  Stine's subsequent work nonetheless shows serious droughts in California's past.

To this day, there are still a few independent municipalities within the city of Los Angeles — Beverly Hills being the best known because it has its own well, as do Santa Monica and Culver City.  Most of the rest of the former independent towns in the area are now just neighborhoods, such as Northridge and Canoga Park — because LA extorted them into assimilation in order for them to get water from the aqueduct.  Then came Boulder and the Hoover Dam, and the Metropolitan Water District was formed to distribute Colorado River water around Southern California.  For L.A. to join the MWD, it had to stop annexing other towns in exchange for water.  L.A. does not seriously rely on MWD water, but it's nice to have a backup.

Snow pack is one of the greatest of all freebies when it comes to accessing potable water in an otherwise dry climate.  It stays frozen up there until the warm weather comes and the need for water increases, so then it melts and surrenders to gravity.

About thirty years ago, I was talking to a well-known climatologist.  I asked him what the likely climate trends were for California.  He told me to expect more rain and less snow.  I responded that it looked as though we needed to create more reservoir storage capacity, and he nodded.

At the risk of stating the obvious, water is not consumed; it is just constantly redistributed.  Also, most rain falls on the oceans, since they cover most of the earth's surface. 

Another great hero in developing California's water supply was governor Pat Brown.  He championed the State Water Project, which brought Sacramento River water down through the Central Valley.  His son Jerry, who was governor for twice as long as his dad, is one of the great villains in the same story.  Talk about irony.  Not only has California failed to adapt its water system for the possible decrease in snow pack, but it has also failed to accommodate a serious increase in population, mostly at the expense of agriculture and the consumers of such.

On the flip-side of all this is an approximately 165-year deluge cycle.  This last happened in 1862, when the Central Valley was under water for six months.  Had there not been a Civil War raging at the time, the human cost might have been better documented.  Downtown Sacramento has a preserved example of the flood days, and expressions such as "Pineapple Express" and "atmospheric river" are still often used in describing storm patterns.  Sediment analysis indicates that the cycle has persisted for thousands of years (source: Scientific American).  Let's see...1862 plus 165 equals, uh, 2027.  Really?

May I suggest for further reading Water and Power: The Conflict over Los Angeles' Water Supply in the Owens Valley by William Kahrl, who also edited the California Water Atlas in 1979?

Image via Pxhere.

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