Water in California: The Great Thirst and Battling the Inland Sea

The Country in the City tells the story how Bay Area residents organized to preserve open space. It is an inspiring and encouraging tale. The evidence of success is visible on any clear day. The culture and organizing practices that kept the hills green is active today, as Bay Area towns organize to combat greenhouse gas emissions.
The story of California water by contrast, is an ongoing tale of human folly. Battling the Inland Sea, by Robert Kelley, focuses on the efforts to deal with chronic flooding in the Sacramento / SanJoaquin delta. The Great Thirst is a magisterial overview of water use and water wars in California.
Robert Kelley wasn’t just a bystander to the ironies of water history, but an actor. In the the 50s, he served as an expert witness, marshaling the history of the century of failed efforts to control flooding in the delta. The earlier efforts, he concluded, were doomed to fail because they lacked a comprehensive perspective of the delta water system. Estimates of the volume of seasonal floods were off by factors of hundreds. Piecemeal flood control efforts were next to useless.
Kelley puts the history of delta flood control in the perspective of the history of California political culture. In the 1800s, politics was polarized between Democrats, who distrusted central authority and formal education, and believed in local control, and Whigs, who believed in the enlightened rule of an educated elite. The local-control approach to flood control was a disaster. Landowners on either side of a river mounted futile arms races to build levees on their side of the river and sabotage the levee on the other side.
During the civil war era, Southerners broke with the Whig party, and the remnants formed the Republicans, but the traits of political culture remained. The centralizing, technocratic, elitist impulse held sway in the early 20th century and enabled larger, more centralized projects. Kelley seemingly sympathizes with the Whig point of view. With the massive, California State Water Project in the 50s and 60s, Kelley is confident that they finally got it right (I have the 1989 edition from the library, I don’t know if he’s more appropriately pessimistic in the 1998 version)
But they didn’t. The vast quantities of water siphoned from the delta has left the ecosystem on the verge of collapse. A judge’s recent order limiting water export from the Delta to protect the endangered Delta Smelt has thrown the system into disarray. A recent special legislative session to deal with the water issues ended without agreement.
Reading the 150 year history of the Inland Sea in the context of current events is sobering enough. The Great Thirst surveys California’s water follies with a panoramic perspective of California’s massive water works. The draining of the Sacramento Delta to irrigate farms and supplement Southern California’s water supply is parallel to Los Angeles’ taking of Owens River water, and San Francisco’s appropriation of Tuolumne river water with the Hetch Hetchy dam.
In recent decades the hubris of the great waterworks has been tempered by values of conservation and environmental protection. The LA area has learned conservation lessons — its population has grown over the last 20 years, but water consumption has barely increased Scientists have realized that surface water and groundwater supplies are connected, and groundwater recharge is seen as a major source of storage.
Systematic problems remain. Farmers get subsidized water at 1/100th of the cost paid in the city, and farmers consuming 80% of the state’s water. Pesticides, industrial pollutants, and urban runoff pollute groundwater and streams. There are periodic droughts. Meanwhile, global warming threatens to cut water supply by 50% or more.
Like Kelley, Hundley puts the history of water in the context of political culture. Hundley’s analysis is proportionate to the book’s broader scope.
Hundley contrasts the system of California’s early Spanish rulers — central authority dividing water proportionately, in times of need, for the common good — with the American system. The American system has been cobbled together from a hodge podge of legal principles, including riparian (water control to the landowner of the banks of the river), appropriator (whoever claims the water first), and homesteader (a principle of Reclamation law, honored more in the breach than the observance, which allocated water only to small independent farmers). None of these principles recognizes compromise and common good; and a result has been endless court battles in the attempt to win a zero sum game.
While “The City in the Country” left readers with the feeling that concerted organizing can make a big difference in the environmental health of a region. The books on water history leave the reader with the feeling that our civilization is not unlikely to head down the path of ancient Mesopotamia, where irrigation led slowly toward environmental and political demise.

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