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¡§When the Okies left Oklahoma and moved to California, it raised the I

The Impact of Water on California               Katharine Yang


David Carle teaches biology at Cerro Coso Community College, Eastern Sierra College Center. 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 Ana River, 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 County.

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 Joaquin Valley. 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 Indian Museum, 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 areas.

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 <http:// www.isragood.com/2008/01/nirosoft-turning-bad-water-into-fresh.html>.

23. Carle, David. 47.

24. Gleick, Peter H. 257.