Through e-mail and online links, I’ve come across two articles in recent days that explain California’s water crisis and its underlying causes better than anything else I’ve read in the mainstream media.
The first is titled “California’s Vanishing Lakes and the Hunger of the Mines“. It examines the impact of the Gold Rush on that State’s ecology and wildlife. It’s fascinating reading, albeit repellent in the extent of its rapacity. Here’s how it begins.
If you drive the long stretch of Interstate 5 known as the Westside Freeway, from the foot of the Grapevine through Buttonwillow and on to Los Banos, you’ll be cruising along the edge of the richest and most productive farm land in the world. If, halfway through that journey, you stop at a place called Kettleman City (a name more ambitious than accurate) and stand at the edge of the parking lot behind the In-and-Out Burger looking due east down a gentle slope, you’ll be staring at what was once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River.
Of course, from your perch at the In-and-Out, you won’t see any water. Tulare Lake is long gone, all 700 square miles of it; its water restrained behind dams in the foothills and channelled away into the irrigation canals that make the Central Valley so productive. In its place are hundreds of square miles of cotton and corn, and an elaborate system of drains, ditches, channels and sumps designed to keep the lake bed farmable.
The massive rearranging of California’s water resources, which began with the Gold Rush and continues to the present day, is a triumph of ingenuity and engineering, and the utter destruction of the original, pre-1849 biome.
There’s much more at the link. It’s a long article, but well worth your time.
The second article is by Victor Davis Hanson. It’s titled “California: Running on Empty“. Here’s an excerpt.
We suffer in California from a particular form of progressive immorality predicated on insular selfishness. The water supplies of Los Angeles and the Bay Area are still for a year longer in good shape, despite the four-year drought. Neither area is self-sufficient in water; their aquifers are marginal and only supply a fraction of their daily needs. Instead these megalopolises depend on intricate and expensive water transfer systems — from Northern California, from the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and from the Colorado River — that bring water and life to quite unnatural habitats and thereby allow a MGM or Facebook to thrive in an arid landscape that otherwise would not support such commerce and population. Without them, Atherton would look like Porterville.
Quiet engineers in the shadows make it all work; the loud activists in the media seek to make it unwind. These transfers have sterling legal authority and first claims on mountain and northern state water. If Latinos in Lemon Cove are going without household water, Pyramid Lake on I-5 or Crystal Springs Reservoir on 280 are still full to the brim.
Why then do those who have access to water delivered in a most unnatural way seek to curtail supplies to others? In a word, because they are either ignorant of where their own water comes from or they have not a shred of concern for others less blessed, or both. We will confirm this ethical schizophrenia should a fifth year of drought ensue. Then even the most sacrosanct rights of transferred water will not be sufficient to accommodate the San Francisco and Los Angeles basins. Mass panic and outrage will probably follow, and no one will care a bit about the delta smelt, or a few hundred salmon artificially planted into the San Joaquin River watershed, or a spotted toad that holds up construction of an urgently needed reservoir.
The greens who pontificate about the need to return the San Joaquin watershed to its 19th-century ecosystem will become pariahs. When the taps run dry in Hillsborough and Bel-Air, very powerful people will demand water for their desert environs, which will in fact begin to return to the deserts that they always were as the thin veneer of civilization is scraped away.
The pretensions and vanity of postmodern civilization will do no good. What value is the ubiquity of transgendered restrooms, when there is no water in the toilet or sink? Who needs a reservoir on the back nine, when there is no water for putting greens? Who cares whether plastic grocery bags are outlawed, when one cannot afford the tomatoes or peaches to put in a paper bag? What does it matter whether the homeless or ex-felons are ensured a job on the high-speed rail project, when there is no money or water to build it? Who cares about a new Apple watch, when he stinks to high heaven without a shower?
Let us face elemental reality. A 40-million person California is an iffy place. It is entirely dependent on a sophisticated, man-created infrastructure of dams, reservoirs, canals, pumps, freeways, rail lines, airports, and schools and universities. Given that the population continues to rise, and given that one in four Californians was not born in the United States and is often poor (California has the largest population in real and relative numbers below the poverty line; one sixth of the nation on welfare payments of some sort lives in California), there is no margin of safety. A drought is but a metaphor about the collapse of an entire way of living.
Again, more at the link, and highly recommended reading.
In essence, taking these two articles together, they point out how California was remade to suit its inhabitants, with complete and utter disregard for what Nature had wrought there over the previous millennia. Now that remaking is coming undone, because Nature has blithely continued to do as she’s always done, and she’s a damn sight more powerful than all the works of man. California has, quite simply, exceeded its carrying capacity. For a time that could be compensated for by technology, ingenuity and massive structural investment. The money to continue such investment is no longer there, and there’s no longer an abundance of natural resources within range that can be exploited.
The articles are a sobering reminder of the truth of the ancient Greek warnings about hubris, which was inevitably followed by nemesis. (or, as Longfellow put it, “Whom the Gods would destroy, they first make mad“). Looking at California today, it’s hard to argue that those precepts don’t apply.