New article: Developments on the Colorado River: A Crash-Course

Growing up in California, I never asked where my water came from.

Like most of us, I didn’t need to think about water. I simply turned a handle, opened a tap, or pressed a button—and clean water flowed forth.

If, as a teenager, someone had quizzed me about what I would do in an emergency—if I turned a handle and water didn’t come out, and I couldn’t buy bottled water—I probably would have said, “go down to the nearest river or lake and scoop it out.”

But in Bakersfield, California, there is only one small river, the Kern, which could never support the hundreds of thousands who live nearby. From April to November, Bakersfield receives virtually zero rain, and the Kern is seldom more than a dry, sandy wash.

The Kern River in Bakersfield

Perhaps I would have remembered Lake Isabella, an hour’s drive to the northeast, which is not a natural lake at all, but a dammed reservoir on the Kern. That might sustain the local population for a few days or weeks, were it possible to calmly and equally access and distribute the water. (It wouldn’t be.)

Today, I understand that a truly serious water crisis in a city of 300,000 would be a grim event. Most people would attempt to flee, of course, to those places with abundant natural water, like far northern California, the Pacific Northwest, or the eastern United States. If they couldn’t leave—if the roads were jammed, or the water-rich locales were turning away refugees—things would turn ugly, quickly, as desperate people did horrible things to each other to protect their families and slate their panicked thirst.

We can’t go long without water; that’s something I learned clearly as an adolescent on overnight backpacking trips in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. The July sun, 7000’ elevation, and long miles demanded that I chug 3+ liters a day. Sometimes I ran out of water an hour before reaching the next reliable stream or lake. Those were 60 difficult, stressful minutes, but salvation was always close at hand, and my fellow backpackers typically had water to lend, so I never lost my cool.

I did lose it once—on an unexpectedly long trail run, on an unexpectedly hot day, on a remote section of the Pacific Crest Trail in southern California. Salvation was not at hand, and as the sun evaporated every last drop of moisture from salt-crusted skin, I sensed the looming threat of major dehydration, heat stroke, and soon enough, death. It was terrifying. Such things happening on a mass scale? Unthinkable.

Yet this is our world. Reasonably educated people like you and me choose to live in the major cities of the western United States, despite understanding that such places are essentially deserts, despite the fact that if our precarious system of dams, reservoirs, canals, and municipal water systems were to fail, we’d find ourselves in a crisis of immediate, epic, and life-threatening proportions. We do it because we love the mountains and deserts, because we love the warm, sunny, and dry climates, and ultimately, because we can. We turn the handle and water flows. We don’t need to ask why.

Such a damn good book

I’m not a hydrologist. I consider myself aware of major environmental issues, but I don’t consider myself an environmental activist. Nor am I concerned about some imminent water disaster. Instead, I’m a Californian who stumbled onto a book one day in a college library: a book that answered questions that I didn’t know I even had.

The book was Cadillac Desert, and the question was this: What’s that funny-looking concrete river that runs down the middle of California?

The California State Water Project in the Central Valley

My brother and I spent the school-year with my mom in Bakersfield and holidays with my dad near San Francisco. This meant a lot of driving up and down Interstate 5, the highway that connects L.A. and Sacramento, and a lot of time staring at the farmlands of the Central Valley. It also mean spying, every now and then, on that big, winding, concrete-lined canal that cuts through the Central Valley for hundreds of miles.

Since it didn’t rain for two-thirds of the year in that part of California—yet the farms seemed to be growing things all the time—part of my teenage brain must have assumed that the canal played a part. But like drinking water, I never really had to think about this. For all intents and purposes, my food came from supermarkets; farms were just the theoretical intermediary. Despite growing up in one of the most agriculturally productive areas of the United States, I’d never stepped foot on a large farm or knew anyone who worked on one.

Idly browsing the Moffitt Library at the University of California at Berkeley one day, where I was studying physics and education, I stumbled upon a book with an interesting title: Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water. Published in 1986 and revised in 1993, the book already felt a bit old, but the writing hooked me. And within just an hour, I discovered the answer to the question I didn’t know I had: that concrete river was the California State Water Project, a massively expensive feat of engineering that brought water from the rainy, lightly populated parts of far northern California down to the farms and cities of central and southern California.

The water began in dammed reservoirs on the Sacramento and Feather Rivers, traveled a few hundred miles south to the Sacramento Delta, and then was pumped out of the Delta, into the winding, concrete lined canal I’d seen so many times. It continued its journey through southward, feeding the farms around Fresno and Bakersfield before then getting pumped over an entire mountain range, the Tehachapis (familiar to anyone driving south to Los Angeles on I-5), where it then filled the reservoirs that provided drinking water to the greater L.A. area.

The Ira J Chrisman “Wind Gap” pumps, viewable from Interstate 5 before ascending the Tehachapi mountains

To pump that water over the Tehachapis, however, was no small feat; it required the equivalent of an entire nuclear power plant just to get that water where it didn’t want to go, namely, a desert basin in Southern California that might support 500,000 people with its own resources, but instead supports (today) almost 20 million.

Twenty million people! I’d visited L.A. enough to know that it was a concrete jungle of seemingly endless proportions. I’d also seen Terminator 2 enough times to recall the battle scene in the concrete-lined canal of what once was the Los Angeles River.

Thanks for bringing visibility to the L.A. River, Arnold

Why wasn’t there any water in that canal? Because, Cadillac Desert soon taught me, the canal was just for flood control now. No one in Los Angeles would go to the Los Angeles River in a crisis, because they all know it’s bone-dry. L.A. only exists because it imports water from far-flung corners of California like the Feather River and the Owens Valley, where L.A. water officials secretly obtained water rights by buying up farms in the beginning of the 20th century and piping the entire Owens River hundreds of miles across the Mojave Desert.

The Los Angeles Aqueduct

Los Angeles, I learned, even draws water from the Colorado River. The Colorado River! Now my mind was really blown. The little l I knew about the Colorado River was that it started in Colorado, it created the Grand Canyon, and it was what the Hoover Dam held at bay. But I didn’t realize that Los Angeles (and San Diego, and all the other dry cities of southern California) got a significant part of their water all the way from the Colorado. That’s crazy, I thought, just before another thought popped into my head: That’s amazing. I had spent most of my life in California and I had no idea where its water came from.

What about San Francisco? That’s the “wet” part of the state, right? Only in comparison to the desert, I soon learned—the Bay Area, too, could never naturally support its current population. Water is piped in from the far-away Hetch Hetchy Reservoir adjacent to Yosemite Valley: a reservoir that John Muir fought tooth-and-nail to oppose. But the the great earthquake (and resulting fire) that San Francisco suffered in 1906—along with its growing population—finally took precedence. Even the very ground where I stood while poring over Cadillac Desert, Berkeley, could never support its current population; only thanks to a vast network of dams, pipes, and canals that delivered water from the distant Mokelumne River did the 20,000 undergraduates of UC Berkeley even exist.

California Aqueducts
The many ways in which Californians get their water

It’s not every day that you stumble upon a body of knowledge that explains your very existence. Thus emerged my hunger—nay, my thirst—for understanding water in the western United States.