The state of our water
As I write this, I haven’t seen the sun since a brief moment on Thursday, Feb. 16, in San Francisco for a couple hours between high gusts of wind and rain. I drove across the state at about 8 p.m. and got to Canyon Dam around 1:13 a.m. having not talked to a single human being in that time.
At Canyon Dam, the worker taxed with the night shift talked to me in as a surreal way as anything “Twin Peaks” ever made up while we waited for the pilot car. It felt like he hadn’t talked to anyone in hours either. We talked about water.
I took a different route home than usual to avoid possible evacuation traffic from Oroville and flooded out roads.
It occurred to me that I was traveling into trouble, not away from it. It is times like these when those of us who have grafted ourselves onto this land in Plumas County start to second-guess that decision. There are myths we tell ourselves in order to live here: better community spirit, lower cost of living, better quality of life. Our beliefs are tested as the water rises to the back doorstep. It occurs to me that I have lived here pretty much as long as I ever lived anywhere — which is to say this is just as much home and not home as the city of my birth. Right now I couldn’t tell you which was the hardest living arrangement.
Sometimes grafting doesn’t take. Truth be told? I might prefer drought. Sssh. Did I just say that?!
I’d feel worse about all the post-drought rain (because collectively we were all happy about the rain at the beginning) if I thought my Los Angeles was some bright shiny sun baked beacon, but it’s been hit hard too. So Californians, we are all in this together. Our abundance of water for a brief moment seemed joyous. But now as our roads, bridges, canyons start to crumble. As those 50 miles below us face evacuation notices, we are back to pointing fingers of blame. Just who is to blame for our flooding and infrastructure failures?
I thought of this while avoiding potholes in San Francisco on the way to the Bay Bridge and driving down the I-80 east before cutting off onto the 505. Is it just me or does it seem weird that the richest state in the union, indeed the sixth largest economy in the world, should have third world size potholes on the road that leads to the state capitol?
Is it strange to anyone else that a spillway wouldn’t have metal rebar in it? Or, as Jane Braxton Little reported in the Sacramento Bee last week that DWR employees weren’t sure where or what Antelope Lake was or any of the other reservoirs we live right next to that feed into Oroville Dam?
Like any foolish citizen, I attempted to answer such questions by going online and getting a feel for my fellow Californians’ anger and frustration about our current reverse water crisis. And I discover yet again that no one who is complaining seems to have a handle on California history beyond missions and the Gold Rush — and even that seems to be sketchy. I don’t blame them however, I was that way too until about 1990 when, during some water crisis or another back home in Los Angeles, I remarked stupidly to my grandfather that well, of course as much water should be given to the Central Valley to grow food. We need food. The signs in the Central Valley along the 99 and the 5 tell us so.
My grandfather thrust an original copy of the late, great Marc Reisner’s whodunit history of the west, “Cadillac Desert” into my hands and said, “Read it. Your dad gave this to me and insisted I read it and to never again say what you just said.” My grandfather was never one to be particularly demonstrative so I took that as some sort of sign. I read it and called my biology professor-turned medical doctor dad for some heavy Socratic dialogue about my beloved state (technically born in New York, he’d long since given up on California and had been living in New Mexico before settling in Wisconsin).
If there’s one book I recommend to anyone foolish enough to opine philosophical on California’s water, it is “Cadillac Desert.” Sure, parts are now dated and the late Reisner can’t update them. But if you’re looking for history not to repeat itself in water usage, look no further.
Among the many western water tales in the book — the tale of how Los Angeles stole water from Owens Valley — the tale of how the Grand Canyon almost became a reservoir, and the Glen Canyon trade off — is a tale closer to home: The San Joaquin and the Sacramento Valleys and reckless use of ground water and our water up here.
We aren’t as a culture, conservationists. When we have more, we use more. We don’t tend to move towards sustainable development when given the chance — we tend to overbuild, over farm and spend down our overabundance. We are a state founded on greedy eyes searching and hoping to horde gold, for goodness sake. As Joan Didion writes in “Where I Am From,” we are the type of people who left family members on the side of the road to die as we traversed difficult mountain passages. We are into this for our own survival.
I’m guessing there’s a sizeable cluster of people in the state capitol that do not realize that our water problems have a long history. If you develop a desert, you’re going to run into issues. I’m guessing they also don’t realize that those of us in the largely underrepresented northern counties harbor somewhat deserved animosity towards them. Would there even be a state of Jefferson movement if the north were listened to about water? Would there be a dam crisis if a decade’s old complaint by environmentalists was heeded? Not everything is the fault of some misguided dude in Orange County hosing down his driveway with drinking water.
Our current governor’s father was water project happy, like William Mulholland before him. Each in hand built a system to provide water to a population they assumed was leveling out, and farming they assumed would be sustainable. They assumed incorrectly.
Wednesday morning, Feb. 22. The sun is out — as is 4 more inches of winter snow — and our never ending winter season in a crumbling state continues.