17 Dec 2009

Water and the California Dream -- The Review

Update (April 2016): This book is now out in a second edition.

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.