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Watermark: Along the California Aqueduct

Watermark Along the California Aqueduct


Modern California is in fact an extraordinary achievement. To make a semi-arid region not only habitable but also prosperous and abundant has required massive and sustained geo-engineering — the construction, over generations, of a complex network of reservoirs and dams, of aqueducts, tunnels, and canals, of pumping stations and treatment plants, much of which is dedicated not only to harvesting, storing, and supplying water but also to transporting it from where it originates, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, to where it is needed, in the great coastal cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles and the farmlands of the Central Valley.

The history of this achievement has been amply documented, from the mid 19th-century settlement of the Central Valley and its development into one of the most highly managed agricultural landscapes on the planet, what historian Kevin Starr has called “the most productive unnatural landscape in the world” 3; to the diversion of Owens Lake, in the eastern Sierras, a century ago, to provide water for the growing metropolis of Los Angeles; to the flooding of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, in Yosemite, to create the reservoir that for decades has served San Francisco, more than 150 miles to the west. 4

But the very success of this achievement has produced a wicked tangle of problems which are not only ecological and environmental but also political, economic, and legal. Hetch-Hetchy Dam was controversial from the start (early opponents included the Sierra Club and its founder John Muir) and remains so today, with activists clamoring for the restoration of the valley. Owens Lake enabled the rise of L.A. but was eventually pumped dry and became, as Karen Piper put it an article in this journal, “a howling wasteland of toxic dust.” And the transformation of the 450-mile-long, 50-mile-wide Central Valley from a region of shallow lakes and vast marshes into a gridded geometry of irrigated farmlands has required the pumping of enormous amounts of groundwater, which has led to soil subsidence and heaved roads and fractured canals. More ominously, it has led to depletion of the Valley aquifer; because groundwater pumping is unregulated, it’s unclear how much fresh water now remains, but already farmers are digging deeper and deeper wells and depending upon increasingly saline water to irrigate their orchards and fields. And along the way, the state’s increasingly sophisticated capacity to move and manage water has been accompanied by an increasingly complex and irreconcilable series of legal agreements, from unquantifiable principles like “first in time, first in right” (1848) and “reasonable use” (1886), to “safe yield” (1903) and “public trust” (1930), to the more recent “co-equal goals” (2010). 5 Unsurprisingly these have proven contentious and led to the ongoing water wars that have defined the state’s politics and determined its economy.

Stashed in: California, Maps!, Water!, California, Nuts!, Drought

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Today I learned that the problem of water in California is much more complicated than I realized. 

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