Book Review: Water and the California Dream

Water and the California Dream
Carle, David
Counterpoint, 2016

What were the odds – I drive 1500 miles from the California desert to combine getting out of the dry desert summer with a pilgrimage to Elliott Bay Books in Seattle, stop off at Mono Lake along the way, and I walk in to the bookstore to find a book propped up on a display stand with a picture of Mono Lake on the cover titled “Water and the California Dream”…. Of course the book ended up in my pile, and was one of the first to be read upon my return.

The book gives readers an overview of the settlement and amazing growth of California from the mid 1800’s on. Particular attention is paid to the combination of land usage patterns, water allocation, and environmental quality against the backdrop of societal and political landscapes through various periods of the state’s development. The role of mining, agricultural, and real estate interests are discussed within this context and used as examples of conflict over water resources. In the end, predictably enough, there is a call for action to reduce the individual and collective environmental footprints, establish a balanced plan for the growth or stabilization of the state’s population, and try and recover what has not yet been lost.

I really enjoyed this book. As a skeptical newcomer to the state, selected not on location or environmental merits but on the economics of following my job, I appreciated the glimpse provided by the book into the background of how the state develop in ways unlikely to be stitched together in a conventional history.

Rather than naturally growing out of an agricultural origin like most states in the US, California basically exploded into a state based on the gold rush, and it’s early laws gave mining the run of the land. Changing economic policies where land itself was taxed, rather than simply the products from that land, led to the massive former Spanish grant lands being sold off from the largely subsistence families which held and worked them to early developers and development corporations headed by the political and economic elite. The arrival of the railroad heralded the citrus boom when small southern California communities found ready markets to expand production into realms larger than they could have previously found markets for, and with that came greater exposure to the rest of the country of a carefully managed image of the California Dream, with land for new housing happily sold by those who had picked it up for a bargain. It was still, however, a place where there were citrus groves and open roads for miles between towns, the air was clean, wildlife teemed along natural waterways and the margins of cultivated land, and the groves and towns were supplied from artesian wells.

And then, cue the evil laughing soundtrack, the developers decided it was time to sell yet more land, this time marginal grazing lands. They realized they would need more water to convince anyone to live there, so they set out in search for it. Ostensibly to save the current citizens from drying out and withering, an image supported by a massive propaganda campaign complete with scare tactics and outright lies, the water department, mayor, owner of the local newspaper, and similar impeccable sources detailed a desolate future and boom to bust outcome for the area if the citizens didn’t vote in favor of massive spending to bring in new water… And once approved, they happily stole an entire valley’s water, drained a lake, created an environmental disaster, and brought in more water than the city could use…. While at the same time, they annexed lands owned by these very same individuals into the city so that they could access the surplus water, then sold at a high profit. And repeated the cycle. And again. Until eventually there were no more citrus groves, no more clean air, no more open roads. And they continued to extol that goodness was in growth.

Then the tide turned. People began to realize there were mistakes in the logic. Another shift in priorities happened, and ever so slowly the needle began to move. The author does his best to provide motivation to the reader to do what they can to keep the needle swinging, even if it means questioning what they have been told is the future they should aspire to.  Is it possible to scale back?  is it conceivable to right what was made wrong?

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