Western History and the California Drought

Not far from where we live in San Jose are a collection of percolation ponds (such as the one I photographed above) nestled along the Guadalupe Creek. The ponds exist to capture surface water runoff and replenish underground aquifers. I’ve been walking, running, and mountain biking around these ponds for almost a year now, and have seen them filled to the brim with water. Until these last couple of weeks, where most now contain obvious water rings or, at worse, are nothing but splotches of mud. Visible signs of drought.

There is no shortage of news articles appearing today that discuss California’s water. But a pair of recent articles on the California drought have caught my eye, one by Timothy Egan in the New York Times and the other from The Economist. Both pieces argue that Californians made a tenuous pact with nature, constructing a hydraulic society that defied sustainability to keep Los Angles, Fresno, and San Francisco green, lush, and thriving. What the drought teaches is a chance to consider the changing climate and human attempts to engineer solutions to environmental problems. In California, mega-engineering projects attempted to ship water north to south to supply the state’s cities and farms. The state – and the West – ask much from nature.

Aridity is no stranger to the region. Stephen Long dubbed the Great Plains the “Great American Desert” in 1823 and the dust storms of the 1920s and 1930s are the stuff of legend. Nor are droughts a rare occurrence for my part of the state. The Mediterranean climate of the Bay Area means that most rainfall occurs between November and March (what Northern Californians refer to as “winter,” causing this Midwesterner to chuckle) and amounts to roughly fifteen to twenty inches of rain annually. The majority of the Bay Area’s water supply comes from other sources – the Hetch-Hetchy water supply, surface water runoff capture, underground aquifers, and snowfall in the Sierra Nevadas. But the Sierras are nearly devoid of snow, and rainfall has been far below average. California is experiencing its driest year on record. And over the weekend, the Central Valley – supplier of around 50% of the nation’s fruits and vegetables – learned they will be getting no federal irrigation water.

John Wesley Powell's watershed map
John Wesley Powell imagined creating states along watershed boundaries.

Consistent access to water has been a common feature of California’s history. Water from the dammed Hetch-Hetchy Valley began supplying the growing city of San Francisco in 1934, the plumbing projects that brought water from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles beginning in 1913, and a system of aqueducts, reservoirs, pumps, canals, and dams built in the mid-twentieth century sought to distribute water statewide. Engineering solutions have helped, admittedly, but perhaps only served as a band-aide over the West’s bigger problem: water is finite. Better water management in the West should be a defining feature of the region, as Edward Abbey, John Wesley Powell, and others have been arguing for some time now.

Some western localities have done well to plan for sustainable growth in the face of pressing or potential water shortages, but the possibility of running out of water has gotten people’s attention – so much so that it’s making headlines in national media. Arguments for better water management are not just philosophical, they are pragmatic. Los Angeles drained the Owens Valley dry, and a potential water project could do the same to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The strategies and solutions won’t be easy or painless, but on the bright side, we might be standing at the rim of new ambitions in western water management.

February 24, 2014 @jaheppler