The Impact of Water on California Katharine Yang
David Carle teaches biology at Cerro Coso Community College,
From 1982 to 2000, he and his wife shared the unit ranger position at the Mono
Lake Tufa State
Reserve, actively trying to protect the Eastern Sierra inland sea from
diversions into Los Angeles. Today,
he remains a freelance writer and is author of Water
and the California Dream (2000) and Mono
Lake Viewpoint (1992).
With decent employment, fine
education, and pleasant climate, California
attracts thousands of newcomers every year. However, in Water and the
California Dream: Choices for the New Millennium, David Carle warns us that
¡§water choices have been the most potent forces shaping population growth¡¨ and
endangering the state¡¦s ecosystem.1 If unchecked, water developers
will continue to tap into natural waters, putting the future of the West Coast
in peril. He predicts that the date of water deficiency will inevitably come
and cries for a solution to the crisis. He highlights the need for
environmental protection and human beings¡¦ harmony with nature. However, his
solution to stifle population growth seems impractical to the movement of
today¡¦s demanding society.
Carle opens his first five chapters
describing the purity of the ¡§grizzly days¡¨ in early California,
when inhabitants consisted mainly of Native Americans, Spanish settlers, and
the wildlife community. Massive coast live oaks lined the Santa
dropping acorns that provided food for both animals and humans. Natives and
grizzlies competed for similar resources, but had already coexisted for
thousands of years.2 Providing an array of seafood including ¡§seals,
sea otters, surf-fish, clams, [and] mussels,¡¨ the ocean was a ¡§supermarket¡¨ in
ways Southern Californians can scarcely appreciate
today.3 Natives, who
worshipped nature for all its gifts, made conscientious efforts to preserve and
safeguard nature¡¦s integrity. However, the gradual construction of adobe
structures for missions altered grasslands; three major waves of grassland
invasion made land ¡§decreasingly palatable for grazing animals.¡¨4 By
the time the Gold Rush came about in 1848 and 1849, sluice box mining, dam
construction, and hydraulic mines eroded much of the shored land and turned
rivers dark with mud and sludge, drying up riverbeds and killing plant and
animal life. The initiation of the Central Pacific Railroad also made a lasting
impact on the water industry. Introduced by Huntington, Hopkins, Crocker, and
Stanford, jointly known as the Big Four, the Central Pacific Railroad fostered
the ¡§boosterism¡¨ ideal in the final decades of the 1800s which called for rapid
industrial expansion in Los Angeles County.
The federal government allocated land grants of 11,585,534 acres, more than 11
percent of California¡¦s total
acreage, ¡§a land monopoly on a grand scale¡¨ to the Big Four.5 By the
late nineteenth century, however, the scarce supply of local water threatened
the railroaders¡¦ ability to market the ¡§millions of arid acres.¡¨6 In
addition, by 1903, not one grizzly bear remained alive in Orange
The twentieth century brought about
the Owens Valley Project, led by water developer William Mulholland, which
entailed the irrigation and diversion of the entire Owens
Lake and consequently, the
construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Delighted by the thought of
freshwater being readily accessible, voters approved the project without much
of a backward glance. By 1913 the Los Angeles Aqueduct began feeding the Owens
Valley water to the city. Noting
that by 1920, Los Angeles¡¦s city
population of 576,000 surpassed that of San Francisco,
Carle confirms water developer William Mulholland¡¦s words that ¡§whoever brings
the water, brings the people.¡¨7 After farmer evictions, careless
planning, and numerous water diversions, ¡§the once vast, living Owens
Lake [became] a dead dustbowl.¡¨8
The loss of one vein of water supply led developers to move on to another. By
1930, developers introduced another proposal to acquire 300,000 more acres in
the Owens Valley
and extend the aqueduct further north, which was again approved by Los
Angeles voters. Propaganda from real estate brochures
such as the ¡§Owensmouth¡¨ painted an attractive picture of water pouring out of
an aqueduct pipe. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) played a
fear campaign that convinced voters of an urgent need for a second barrel in
the aqueduct. But ¡§were [these developers] the region¡¦s benefactors, serving
the community as they personally prospered?¡¨9 Sensing a priority of
greed over societal benefit, Carle notes that these great developers may have
purposely turned their back on their communal responsibilities by accommodating
too many people within the region. Slowly but surely, the choices of the California
developers and voters began to transfer land from those who actually valued it
to those who reaped profit from it.
As the Owens
Valley water line began to fade,
land speculators sought after Colorado River water.
Theodore Roosevelt¡¦s Reclamation Act of 1902 endorsed investigations and
reports on the Colorado River and soon after, from
1905-1907, Colorado River broke through the Imperial
Valley head gates. Three hundred thousand acres were irrigated in
the Imperial Valley, and in 1925, Los
Angeles sanctioned a $2 million bond act to survey for
an aqueduct route. Three years later, the Metropolitan Water District of
Southern California (MWD) launched a dynamic campaign to convince voters to
approve the $220 million bond required for construction. Despite rising
opposition, the public approved the plan, and by 1941, the 242-mile Colorado
River Aqueduct began dispersing water. The first seven years of the 1940s
gained California three million
new residents, a dramatically increased number that Carle finds shocking.
Furthermore, he claims that the smog problem in Southern California
is also an issue caused by water for ¡§without imported water Los
Angeles might still be famed for its healthful air.¡¨10
By the late twentieth century, 99
percent of the native grasslands, 89 percent riparian woodlands, and 95 percent
of the wetlands were gone¡Xan ¡§epicenter of extinction;¡¨ species living in water
communities disappeared or decreased dramatically where their shelters were
reclaimed.11 The Central Valley Project (CVP) was yet another momentous
step towards water supply decline and environmental damage. Started in 1951,
the CVP was a $170 million plan to dam the Sacramento River
and pump water from the San Francisco Bay Delta to the San
Consisting of 20 reservoirs, 11 power plants, and three fish hatcheries, the
CVP consumed seven million acre-feet of water every year and three million
acres of farmland. Another project, the State Water Project (SWP), was a
¡§godsend to the big landowners¡K[providing] irrigation water without imposing
acreage limitations.¡¨12 It built 22 dams and a 444-mile aqueduct;
the largest dam was the Oroville Dam, fueled by an enormous hydroelectric
generating capacity whose annual electricity requirements equal that of the
entire city of San Francisco. To complete
the project as envisioned, the governor, Jerry Brown, approved the construction
of Peripheral Canal
which aimed to move water around the San Francisco Bay Delta before shipping it
to Southern California. Although the canal would be able
to prevent fresh aqueduct water from mixing with the salty tidal waters from
the delta, it would have to divert 1 million acre-feet of water from the delta
and San Francisco Bay
every year. A skeptical public finally refuted to believe in ¡§big scare
tactics¡¨ and defeated Prop 9 (the Peripheral
Canal) on June 8, 1982. The populace recognized the limit to
this water hunt.
In describing the gradual process
of environmental degradation in California,
Carle hopes to enlighten his readers to the harsh reality that water is not an
infinite source. Poor choices proposed by developers and profit-seeking
corporations and supported by the manipulated public have drowned many
Californian dreams. He claims that California
does not have a water shortage and that urban communities use just a fraction
of what¡¦s available; instead of a water crisis, California
suffers from a water allocation crisis. In order to remedy this dilemma, Carle
suggests using water conservatively, saying no to new urban water, and
supporting ¡§local and global efforts toward population stabilization.¡¨13
Carle¡¦s topic on water targets not only a statewide concern
but also a global one. With numerous developing countries ailing from lack of
water resources, the allocation and transport of water is crucial to its usage
in industrialized as well as underdeveloped areas. For example, Southern
California residents consume water taken at the expense of the
freshwater rivers and lakes throughout Western United States.
Moreover, Carle fears overpopulation¡Xhis nightmare portrays California at the
end of the twenty-first century with approaching 200 million Californians who
¡§contaminate each other¡¦s air and water and [crowd] each other¡¦s daily lives,
where schools [are] too full and crime too prevalent.¡¨14 He
expresses exasperation toward the large acres of ¡§farm soils of the Central
Valley...buried beneath pavement and buildings¡¨ and the growing
necessity of ¡§captive breeding programs.¡¨15 However, there is still
hope¡X ¡§Californians seem to be forgetting that they...[can] voluntarily
stabilize their numbers.16 Carle makes a number of quick assumptions
without a fully supplemental foundation of evidence. As park ranger of Hearst
San Simeon State Historical Monument, State
and Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve, it is expected that Carle would adopt ideas
sympathetic to the organizations that he has worked for, overlooking the more
significant reasons why immigrants move to California.
An environmental historian, Carle calls for the preservation of the natural
environment, the awareness of California¡¦s
future, and the conscious efforts towards population stabilization. Lenient
water controls, he conjectures, have been responsible for the rapid population
growth in California throughout
the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, he neglects the numerous other
factors that promote population growth; better living conditions, solid
education opportunities, and high job availability are the chief motivators in
alluring newcomers. Immigrants who plan on moving do not just consider a
plentiful water supply as the fundamental motive for their relocation; as long
as adequate housing, secure income, and family survival, and good children¡¦s
education can be sustained, the average immigrant family is content.
Peter H. Gleick¡¦s book review from
the Natural Resources Forum observes
that ¡§the reality is more complicated than Carle describes;¡¨ there is ¡§no
evidence that water policy alone is enough to limit population growth and
preserve a vision of paradise [as Carle describes].¡¨17 If developers
had not brought water to Los Angeles,
the city population would still have grown at a substantial rate. To contradict
Carle¡¦s water-population thesis, Gleick notes that the world consists of a vast
number of ¡§unpleasant cities that have failed to build water systems adequate
for their current (or future) populations¡¨ not only the ones in the United
States. Such examples include Amman, Jordan
where ¡§tanker trucks provide water for the richer populations¡¨ while the poor
rely on an ¡§inadequate and dilapidated system,¡¨ and Lima, Peru where ¡§economic
advantage and a better life¡¨ exceed the need for a stable urban water supply.17
If it weren¡¦t for the Big Four¡¦s expansion into the region, perhaps urban
sprawl and manufacturing would have taken up the space instead.
William Blomquist, professor at Indiana
University, assesses Carle¡¦s book
even more critically. A number of factual errors and regional bias shroud
Carle¡¦s ability to create an impartial account of California
water history. Contrary to Carle¡¦s blame upon water for pollution, Southern
California has not contained ¡§the worst air quality in the United
States¡¨ for a number of years.18
Carle dramatizes the facts in order to make his evidence more convincing.
Blomquist finds that ¡§Carle has the Metropolitan Water District¡¦s Colorado
River Aqueduct bringing water from Hoover Dam and Lake Mead¡¨ when instead it
comes from Parker Dam and Lake Havasu. By failing to obtain and employ accurate
information, Carle invalidates his own argument.19 Selected pieces
of evidence Carle employs target Southern California, making his book look more
like an ¡§anti-Southern California screed than a serious discussion of the
state¡¦s water choices.¡¨20 He neglects or says little about the San
Francisco¡¦s Hetch Hetchy project, the East Bay
Municipal Utility District¡¦s Mokelumne
River imports, or the deliveries of
imported Northern Californian water to the Central Valley,
¡§a full 20 years before Northern California water
reached Southern California cities in 1971.¡¨20
Carle¡¦s belief that water choices
determine population growth is, indeed, too simplistic and untrue. Simply
because water expansion projects and Californian population growth occurred at
the same time does not mean they are directly correlated. Immigrants move into
a new region because it offers better opportunities for families not because it
carries a large supply of water. When Carle claims that keeping more Colorado
River water in Mexico ¡§may help decrease immigration pressure up north,¡¨ he
makes a hasty generalization that Mexican immigrants move to California because
of its abundant water supply, a qualification that is most likely of little
importance for those considering immigration.21 Furthermore, it is
rather impractical to cut off water to a growing urban populace that needs
water to sustain survival. New technology has already proven that water
resources are not as limited as are perceived. A newly developed innovation
demonstrates an alternative solution. For example, Israel¡¦s
Nirosoft has developed a method to convert water of almost any source¡Xseawater, rivers and
lakes, brackish groundwater, estuaries and lagoons, into clean drinkable water,
desalinating at a cost cheaper than ¡§melting ice.¡¨22 By tapping into
this incredible technology, the numerous projects like CVP and SWP will not be
necessary; the worries that Carle have will simply melt away. Conserving water,
utilizing new methods, and controlling new water projects will gradually
alleviate the burden of satisfying the thirst of an increasing population.
Historically, the Transportation Revolution
of the early 1800s inspired the expansion toward the west and the Big Four¡¦s
founding of the Central Pacific Railroad. The nation¡¦s long-standing concept of
¡§manifest destiny¡¨ may also have led to ¡§boosterism,¡¨ a growth dogma in the
final decades of 1880s. Like manifest destiny, boosterism became ¡§a seemingly
unstoppable force,¡¨ a stigma for expansion. The attractive quality in urban
enclaves ¡§would succumb to the growth dogma of land barons¡K[who pushed] past
watershed limits.¡¨23 The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe
Railroad drove into these areas, sharing the land hunger that their forerunners
possessed. The concept of ¡§more is better¡¨ embraced during the 1960s carried on
to the expansion of water reserves in California as developers and voters alike
chased after new water lifelines after the previous ones had depleted.
California¡¦s rapid water
development is a phenomenon unique to the state. On the up side, economic
success has endowed the state the power to extract water resources from other
regions. Like the King of the Western States, California received ample support
from the federal government through generous land grants and funds for water
projects. On the down side, such water projects supplied by other regions still
fail to make supply match demand. The lack of rainfall and the unfavorable
geographic position behind the Rocky Mountains foster an arid
climate, denying enough water especially to Southern
California, an area highly dependent on water from Northern
California and other states. Without water from these regions and
reasonable rainfall, Southern California may soon suffer
from a drought. The continuation of such costly water projects harms not
only California but surrounding
states that rely on the nearby freshwater bodies as well. If matters become
dire, California may be seeking
water imports from all over the country in order to satisfy the needs of its
populace. In addition, pollution in freshwaters have reduced quality drinkable
water supply. If Californians make better use of their water, they can reduce
dependence on water from other states which can be redistributed to other
Water and the California Dream
gives a close-up account of the ¡§stories of California¡¦s water development, the
actors who played in that drama, and the legacy¡¨ of the choices made by today¡¦s
predecessors.24 He deserves praise for recognizing the water
shortage crisis, pressing for environmental protection, and insisting on using
water restrictively. However, his solution to reduce California
population is unrealistic and glum. It does not consider water innovations,
which will soon play a key role in curbing the water shortage crisis in California.
1. Carle, David. Water and the California
Dream: Choices for the New Millennium. San Francisco:
Sierra Club Books, 2000. xv.
2. Carle, David. 4.
3. Carle, David. 5.
4. Carle, David. 13.
5. Carle, David. 46-47.
6. Carle, David. 54.
7. Carle, David. 57.
8. Carle, David. 61.
9. Carle, David. 82.
10. Carle, David. 133.
11. Carle, David. 144.
12. Carle, David. 152.
13. Carle, David. 199.
14. Carle, David. 193.
15. Carle, David. 194.
16. Carle, David. 197.
17. Gleick, Peter H. ¡§Book Reviews.¡¨ Natural Resources
Forum Vol. 26 (2002): 257.
18. Carle, David. 150.
19. Blomquist, William. ¡§Reviews.¡¨ Journal of Political
Ecology. Vol. 7 (2000): 2.
20. Blomquist, William. 3.
21. Carle, David. 203.
22. Clayton, Darnell. ¡§Nirosoft: Turning Bad Water into Fresh
Water.¡¨ Isragood 28 Jan 2008
23. Carle, David. 47.
24. Gleick, Peter H. 257.