17 December 2009

Water and the California Dream -- The Review

DW sent me David Carle's Water and the California Dream: Choices for the New Millennium (Sierra Club Books 2003),* and I found it to be familiar, if depressing reading.

Carle basically outlines and documents the way that water has been used to spur growth, where supply creates demand instead of -- as is often claimed -- meets "inevitable" demand.**

Anyone who has watched Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix and other sprawling "communities" in dry places will be familiar with Carle's thesis: Real estate developers motivated politicians who hired engineers to "get the job done," i.e., build the infrastructure that would take water from where it was to where the developers owned cheap land. Add water, and voila! Instant fortunes!

Carle's Parts II and III document how Mulholland (the engineer) was instrumental in bringing water from the Eastern Sierra (Owens Valley and Mono Lake) via the Los Angeles Aqueduct (LAA). Although Mulholland did not live to see it go into operation, he was also instrumental in getting a Colorado River Aqueduct (CRA, built by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, MWD) to bring even more water.

If you don't have time for the book, watch Chinatown, since the facts in history are well presented in that movie.

I wish that I had read Carle's book before I finished my dissertation (on MWD), since he filled in some facts on LA that I hadn't known. For example, I had thought that the "we're running out of water, quick go get more" rhetoric began with the CRA, but Mulholland had lied about current water supplies and shortages with the LAA as well. That lie is still happening today, with the propaganda for the desalination plant in San Diego, Mulroy's pipes into rural Utah, and the Peripheral Canal in the Delta. None of these infrastructures are needed -- they are just about further real estate development.

(Although these projects cause environmental damage, what galls me is that they are paid for by current customers,*** for the benefit of "new residents," and -- in particular -- for real estate developers. Who sits on your water district board, making decisions "for the good of the community?")

Oh, and California's Department of Water Resources also plays a role -- projecting future "needs" from population and then building infrastructure to supply the "need." Surprise surprise, when the cheap water is there, projected demand shows up!

Part I of the book, btw, describes a California of the past, where Nature was abundant and lush, when grizzly bears roamed in Los Angeles. The grizzly bear that appears on our state flag is now extinct (the irony!), and that's Carle's main point -- we have lost a lot in "our" quest for growth.

Perhaps the most appealing narrative technique that Carle uses is an "alternative universe" view of what could have been if the major water projects had not brought more water -- and sprawl and people -- to dry places. The Los Angeles he describes is indeed appealing -- with more green spaces, less concrete, cleaner air and more "community." Today, we have a city ready-made for Bladerunner. We could have had this [1904]:
Los Angeles is one of the prettiest cities I have seen... every house is surrounded by large grounds that are planted with various trees... The city is a bustling business town, over 100,000 people, fine blocks, elegant hotels, and real estate agents thick enough to walk on.
And those agents did their job too well, selling everything to anyone, and when they ran out of good land to sell, bringing water from elsewhere to make bad lands into subdivisions.****

Part IV describes how Northern California has been adversely impacted by water exports and how the Central Valley was turned from "useless" wetlands swamps into agricultural land. Part V concludes with some visions of the future, but this quotation, in response to Governor Edmund G. Brown's 1962 celebration of "California First" (taking first place as most populous state), tells us what that should be:
...instead of dancing in the streets, we should... call the people of California to the schools, churches, city halls and other places of public assemblage, there to pray for the vision and the guidance to make California the finest state in the Union as well as the largest.

--- Former Governor (and US Chief Justice) Earl Warren
Sounds like a good idea, one that we should have tried to carry out in the past 50 years.

Bottom Line I give this book FIVE STARS for, despite occasional over-the-top tree hugging, its clear thesis and exposition on the perils of relentless growth. California is a wonderful place, but we've done more harm than good in our mismanagement of its resources. Let's get back to quality, not quantity; sustainability, not endless growth.

* Hardcover published as "Drowning the Dream..." in 2000.
** I discuss how this "iron triangle" of real estate-politicians-water managers built and destroyed a Southern California oasis here.
*** Because water is sold at "postage stamp prices" people pay the same for it, no matter where they are in the system. Thus, the cost of serving new customers is spread among all customers.
**** I sold real estate in Orange Country for one summer; my dad still works down there. There are few oranges in Orange County these days.

6 comments:

Laer Pearce said...

I'm troubled by the whole idea of a "quest for growth" and the damning of all that follows. It is true that California was marketed in the early days, and that fortunes were made when people discovered how nice it is ... and that there was water coming out the kitchen faucet.

But that was long ago, and pretty much ended with the post-World War II housing boom. The overwhelming majority of California's growth now is out of Californians' birth canals; it's us having babies, who will grow up and stay here in California because it is so nice (and water comes out the kitchen faucet), and then they will have babies who will also stay. Those who continue to view this natural and wonderful process as a cynical quest for growth will be trapped in false, negative perceptions that will have you tilting at windmills instead of solving problems.

Development today must find water, must install water conserving appliances and landscaping, must control and reuse runoff (in Ventura County and spreading), and must often pay its fair share for new wastewater recycling facilities. And for what? Because we need new homes because we want to have families and we want to stay in California.

Let's shake off the Chinatown paradigm and deal more sensibly and truthfully with the challenges we face, especially our water supply challenges.

WaterSource/WaterBank said...

Laer Pearce ... where are you when I need you ?

CA is now so broke, it can't pay attention !

Tim in Albion said...

@Laer - I didn't believe you until I looked it up, and by golly, you're right; Cali's population growth is mainly from births, not immigration. So much for ZPG! One does wonder what percentage of illegal immigrants are counted in the census figures, but that is irrelevant to this discussion anyway.

Nevertheless, I reach a rather different conclusion: The paradigm that needs shaking off is the continuous-growth ideal. The best line from Carle's book was "Too much is never enough" and that applies to any model that foresees continuous growth. Or do you think we can find 1% more water every year forever?

Tim in Albion said...

p.s. Population growth data here; I imported it to a spreadsheet to check the birth/death and net immigration numbers.

And as for "we want to have families and we want to stay in California" - as the Rolling Stones used to sing, you can't always get what you want.

Josh said...

Actually, those census numbers don't paint the whole picture.

California' TFR (total fertility rate) is the highest in the developed world, at 2.2, and is probably due to the numbers of recent migrants coming to the State. A large number of migrants are undocumented, and they do not show up on the census rolls, but their newborn babies do show up, as these are easier to count.

When you look at fertility rates for folks who've been here longer, they are considerably lower. In the U.S. as a whole, for example, TFR is 2.o, which signals a slight population decline.

I love 'em, I come from 'em, and I won't say that they should not be here. California's birthrate numbers show what freedom, security and economic development do for birth rates: they lower them.

Last, as this relates to carbon emissions, again I plead with people to compare carbon emissions by socioeconomic quintile, and you will see that the biggest emitters are folks with lower birthrates, and that births do not correlate with carbon emissions. Only wealth does.

Josh said...

If we wanted to decrease the region's birth rates, we would do well to industrialize Mexico, our third-world neighbor to the South, and a region we cannot overloook if we want to be honest.