Tuesday, July 10, 2007

It never rains in Southern California...

While Los Angeles and the rest of Southern California may not officially be considered a desert (believe me, I just spent a couple days in Las Vegas, where it topped out at 118 and the overnight low was a ridiculous 85--that's a desert!), as far as its lack of access to fresh water it certainly acts like one most of the time.

For the most part, though, I think many people living here take their water for granted. Swimming pools still dot the fancier housing areas, golf courses and residential green lawns evoke luxury and suburban pleasures, and few think twice about how much water it takes to bathe either oneself or one's cars.

The reality is much different, however, and water use is climbing throughout the arid Western states as more people continue to move to the region. The "history of water" in the West, and in Southern California and Los Angeles in particular, reveals this disturbing lack of awareness for the preciousness of this most fundamental human need. Perhaps the first book to really grab the attention of most people, and still quite a valuable work, was Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert. Originally written in 1986, Reisner revised and updated his classic in 1993, which also provided the source material for a 1997 PBS special.

Reisner passionately details the recent history of water management in the West, focusing intently on the troubling pattern of human ignorance infusing our choices regarding urban development. And even though the book might seem like a daunting challenge to any reader--it's a nearly 600 page treatise!--Reisner writes with such flair that Cadillac Desert reads more like a page-turning mystery. Unfortunately for all, Reisner died of cancer at the tragically young age of 51 in 2000, so any further research or updating we might have benefited from along his lines will have to come from someone else.

Norris Hundley, a professor at UCLA, provides an even more comprehensive look at the history of water use in California in his magisterial The Great Thirst. Hundley devotes nearly 800 pages (!) to his topic and implicitly builds on Reisner's work, although most of the sources Hundley cites are more academic in nature than Cadillac Desert. It is hard to imagine a more definitive account being written, and given Hundley's continuing interest (the latest revision was published in 2001), most likely he will be the person to write it!

Just to show that not all my favorite water studies are so massive, I also recommend Karen Piper's Left in the Dust. Los Angeles gets a good portion of its water from what used to be the Owens River Valley, which lies about 250 miles north of the city. Early in the 20th century, Owens River and Owens Lake provided water to local farmers and Native American tribespeople. Some from the expanding metropolis to the south saw this water as a ticket to insure their own real estate wealth and the continued cheap access to fresh water for a burgeoning suburban San Fernando Valley. If this sounds familiar to you, that's probably because the story of how the Owens River Valley was denuded of its water became part of the basis for the film Chinatown.

Left in the Dust explores the intricate fight between the denizens of Owens Valley and the titans of Los Angeles over this water, but also covers much more. Piper writes the history of the Owens Valley through a series of discrete chapters involving the various people who have chosen to live in this arid landscape--and also some who did not. (The Japanese internment camp Manzanar was located in the Valley, and Piper writes a poignant history of that shameful episode of American paranoia.) The overall theme of Left in the Dust is one of tragedy brought on by the sale of the water, especially for those who still live there; what used to be Owens Lake is now an alkali flat, and the high winds that blow regularly down the valley create massive poisonous dust clouds.

While not uplifting reads, each of these works should be essential reading for anyone living in the West. As global warming reduces the amount of available fresh water in our rivers (or even just by allowing our population to continue to increase), we will eventually have to find new ways of producing usable water, or leave the region entirely . . .

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