By David Carle
University of California Press, 348 pages

Water comes to California by way of westerly, Pacific winds that drive cold, wet storms from the Gulf of Alaska into California’s mountain ranges, most notably the Sierra Nevada.   David Carle, in a moment of awe and wonder, quotes David Duncan who describes our streams and rivers as “rising up in great tapestries of gravity –defying vapor to blow and flow back over us in oceans of clouds, falling once more upon the slopes as rain and snow.”

His effusiveness about the heavens is brief.   Carle quickly gets down to business about water in California with thorough consideration of its many issues, each of which he illustrates with charts, tables, and photos.  No wonder this book is the most detailed “introduction” I have read on any subject.   For example, he carefully describes the 12 hydrological regions in California from the North Coast Region that borders Oregon to the South Coast and Colorado River Regions, noting the individual uniqueness of their watersheds and their significant rivers and lakes.   The unsullied California that he describes is awe-inspiring, majestic, and beautiful.  It also is different in ways that I had not anticipated:  I did not know, for example, that the southern end of the Central Valley once contained Tulare and Buena Vista Lakes—500,000 acres of wetland that were fed by the Kern, Tule, Kings, and Kaweah Rivers.

Of course, things take a turn for the worse or, forgive me, go south once Carle starts in on the rise of California’s cities.  Anybody who has seen Roman Polanski’s Chinatown or read Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert knows that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, among other acts of thievery, diverted the Owens River and the streams that replenished Mono Lake into the California Aqueduct to serve the needs of Los Angeles and allow development of the San Fernando Valley.  Until around the 1980s, when environmentalists began winning in court, developers and big agriculture pretty much had their way with water allotments.  In the process they permanently distorted California’s landscape and made it the land of housing tracts and Taco Bell.  Canyons were dammed, aquifers drawn to the point of causing subsidence, and wildlife driven off the land.  The state has 1,400 dams today, and only one California river remains undammed, the Smith on the North Coast.  Its water and salmon long have been sources of contention but it has avoided damming.  The biggest loser among rivers is the San Joaquin, an annual contender for the Most Endangered River in America.  It is dry for 64 miles below Friant Dam near Fresno.  To think that the flow of a river once mighty enough to flood the Central Valley every year is now interrupted!  The idea is as illogical as a snake missing its middle segment.

The Smith River where the South Fork Branches off (By  Clinton Steeds ,  CC 2.0   Source ) 

The Smith River where the South Fork Branches off (By Clinton Steeds, CC 2.0 Source

Dams are not forever, however.  They stop not only the flow of water but the flow of sediment downstream, which causes a steady buildup of silt that eventually displaces the dam’s capacity for storing water.  In addition, the sediment becomes increasingly contaminated with heavy metals and toxins, such as arsenic and mercury.  Thus, over time dams lose their original purpose and become objects of reevaluation.  In some cases they have been removed. 
As disturbing as these many developments are, the infrastructure that currently is in place to distribute water in California is both a striking testimony to engineering prowess and the high value of water.  At an extreme, the State Water Project (SWP) moves water 600 miles from its origin in the Feather River watershed.   When SWP water reaches the southern end of the Central Valley, the Edmonton Pumping Plant lifts the water 1,926 feet to cross the Tehachapi range.  In doing so the Edmonton Plant is the largest energy user in the state and largest lifting station in the world. 

The California Aqueduct at the Interstate 205 crossing, just east of Interstate 580 junction (By  Ikluft   CC 3.0 ,  Source ) 

The California Aqueduct at the Interstate 205 crossing, just east of Interstate 580 junction (By Ikluft CC 3.0, Source

Near the end of his book Carle raises the question that is on everyone’s mind: will California have enough water for its urban, agricultural, and environmental needs?  He is circumspect on the subject.  On the one hand, the state can meet its needs and even have supplies left over for Owens Lake, the San Joaquin River, neglected wetlands, and other dewatered disasters .  Through conservation, tapping groundwater,  judicious planning, recycling wastewater, modifying residential infrastructure, and refilling evaporation-proof aquifers, the future need not be dire.  

On the other hand, Carle is mindful of California’s history and therefore skeptical of its future course; the state’s population is ever-growing and development is highly profitable to those who provide it.  He writes:

“We might, of course, continue the historic pattern of using water policy to facilitate growth.  In the long term, then, effects on the environment and on our quality of life would worsen, despite our best efforts at habitat and species protection, and despite concepts like ‘smart growth.’  Never-ending growth, whether smart or dumb, will inevitably overtake the limits of California’s water system.”  

Viewed in this way, conservation does not fulfill its mission of restoration.  Instead, developers use the increased availability of water to justify more high-density housing starts.  Accordingly, California remains trapped in an ever-rising spiral of increasing population, continual development, and heightened demands for conservation.

Quality of life is ours to choose, Carle writes at the end, and water policy will be a key determinant of how we live.  “The life we Californians choose, the future we choose, will continue to be shaped most of all by decisions about water.”