Monday, August 20, 2012

On "Drowning the Dream" by David Carle ****

This short monograph is a brief history of California water usage and a call to conservation. Carle's basic premise is that California's staggering growth was not only made possible by engineering feats that brought water from the northern and mountainous regions of the state to the coastal and southern regions of the state but was in fact a direct result of such actions. "If you build it," one might say, "they will come." If you make the water available, the population will expand accordingly. The key to solving California's perennial water problem, therefore, isn't making more water available but rather limiting the amount of water available so that fewer people will wish to live in the state.

It's a sort of chicken and egg argument: Does increasing population cause water shortages or does increasing water availability cause increases in population? Carle favors the latter. And he supports his point by following the growth advocates who have helped make California the state that it is.

The book begins with an account of the stable Indian populations that lived in the area before the coming of the European explorers and settlers. And then, it tells a tale of widespread boosterism and exploitation, making its main start with the discovery of gold in 1848. Those who came to California weren't coming with families. They weren't coming to settle. They weren't coming with the idea of setting up homesteads and taking care of the land. They were coming to make a quick buck, with the intention of returning to the land from which they came. As a result, American settlement of the state began within a tradition that has been maintained ever since: get as much as you can from the resources, environment be damned. So much sediment washed down streams in the search for gold, Carle notes at one point, that more than eight times the amount of earth was moved than in the making of the Panama Canal. That's a lot of dirt, a lot of erosion.

Amid these fortune seekers were those who set up shop as landowners, including railroads. Rather than a land of small farms, because of the vast tracts granted to railway interests, California become a state of large farming interests, which continues to this very day. Those large farming interests tend to see land as an investment rather than as a part of the natural order of things. If more can be made by selling said land to urban dwellers, then by all means the land should be turned over accordingly. Hence, schemes that involve bringing water to otherwise unsellable, mostly desert land are commonplace. Once there's water, the land has value, both for farmers and ultimate for suburbanites.

Growth is main argument for such water projects. Projections are made about how much water the state will need in X number of years. Water is thus acquired. Carle argues that projections are their own self-fulfillment. Project for fewer, and you'll have less growth. But less growth would also mean less ability to sell off land at higher prices to incoming state residents.

Familiar tales are told--of how Los Angeles bought up Owens Valley water rights to settle the San Fernando Valley and enrich a few choice landowners who pushed most heavily for the need for said water; of how part of a national park was dammed to provide drinking water to San Francisco; of how the Colorado was used to help grow other Southern California communities. Also explained are how residents more recently have turned down big new water projects that would shift more water from north to south (though Jerry Brown recently brought the rejected Peripheral Canal project back to life, so perhaps more water maneuvering is still to come), and how environmental concerns have started to eat into the continuing willingness to exploit California's limited water supplies.

At some points, Carle hypothesizes on the state that could have been--a Los Angeles with a population of half a million, a Bishop (in the Sierra Nevadas, near Owens Lake) with a similarly sized population. He points to Santa Barbara, which until a drought, had refused to join up with the state's water plan--and as a result had maintained a reasonably small town size and avoided ballooning growth. So perhaps, there is something to Carle's argument.

That's not to say that I buy the argument wholesale. Populations do get larger, and whether those people settle in California or elsewhere, those people still have to settle somewhere and affect some area's water supplies. Granted, limited supplies will limit growth--higher prices for water or for electricity will drive people to settle elsewhere (I'm a former Californian myself after all, and high cost of living I didn't return to the state after college); rationing is annoying and also likely to stir some to go to another place. But simply shifting population around doesn't necessarily solve the problem.

Carle proposes, as do many environmentalists, that human population simply needs to stop growing. Again, it's a nice idea, but one whose implementation I worry about. How exactly do we discourage people from having children, when that seems such a basic human function and need? And is that the only solution, or does wiser use of our resources also play a role? Still, I am in agreement that growth should not be our main motivation for all decisions--or rather, that the definition of economic growth (bigger is better, more is better) needs to be changed in such a way that it recognizes quality (healthier ways of living) not just quantity (higher GDP).

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