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Out here in the mountain west water is always precious, particularly when living on the east side of any of the hundreds of mountain ranges between the Sierra-Cascades and the Rockies. Out here, the east side of anything is always the drier side, the rain-shadow side, and so eastsiders live within a perpetual loop of drought and diminishing returns. The diminishing returns are a result of aggressive settlement beyond the 100thMeridian, which is desert, and has been a desert since before the end of the last Ice Age.
The illusion of abundance in the western deserts was easy enough to sustain for more than a hundred years because the impacts of so many people on the land were spread far and wide, over hundreds of thousands of square miles, from Tucson to Bend, and even the larger hydrology projects such as the draining of the Klamath Basin (which destroyed the Klamath Basin) or the construction of the LA Aqueduct (which destroyed the Owens Valley) primarily impacted rural areas. In those deeply rural areas – which in both the Klamath and Owens cases also happened to be major stopping points along the Pacific Flyway — the few people living there had no power to prevent what remains the insane vision of settling millions upon millions of people in a desert. A desert that simply cannot sustain the ever-increasing draws on water.
In California, where 25.5 million acres of land are given over to farming in the production of some 400 separate commodities – even as many of those crops and commodities are falling inexorably into the monoculture trap and are wholly owned by hostile foreign entities — the essential water infrastructure has not been updated since the WPA projects of the 1930s. In 1930 there were less than six million people living in California. Today there are over 40 million people, and many millions more that don’t show up on a census. Most of those people take showers every day, wash their dishes and clothes, brush their teeth, flush toilets, water their lawns and gardens, wash their cars, irrigate their fields, or use up water in any number of other daily activities. Estimates are that in California the average person uses 71 gallons of water every day. And in parts of the central valley, where more than 100,000 unregulated irrigation wells draw daily from 20,000 year-old aquifers, the valley floor has dropped nearly 30 feet.
But breeding even more human beings, settling and developing even more of the desert, continues to be the dominant theme. “Growth” is the only way to sustain the economic model even if the end result is the practical exhaustion of the most precious resource required to make the growth models a reality. The population of California is projected to reach nearly 60 million by 2050, though almost no one seems to be discussing where the water supplies to sustain that many people will come from.
This winter, the Sierra snowpack stands at 136% of normal. It is the fifth highest snowload ever recorded in the Sierras. At Donner Pass between Reno and Sacramento the snow is nearly 20 feet deep. That’s great news except that California is unable to capture significant portions of the 580 billion gallons of water that snow represents, because (in an ironic twist) environmental regulations prohibit the building of new dams and reservoirs. This is true even as the collapse of the Oroville dam last year exposed significant problems in the existing infrastructure. And because they can’t capture the water record snowfalls and atmospheric rivers don’t mean as much as they otherwise might. And the unspoken fear is that next year may always be the start of another prolonged drought, only with more and more people taxing the already limited resource.
Here in Central Oregon, where we live on the east side of the Cascades, and whose geology, eco-system, and climactic conditions are similar to those of our cousin range in the Sierras to the south, we have been clobbered by a late February snowstorm. Estimates vary but even here in Sisters, at a mere 3100’ elevation, we’ve received three or more feet of snow in the last week alone. Our reservoirs, from Crane Prairie to Prineville, are now full.
Crane Prairie reservoir has a carrying capacity of more than 55,000 acre-feet of water, and nearby Wickiup (both reservoirs were created by damming the Deschutes River) is capable of carrying some 200,000 acre feet of water. Having those reservoirs full is a celebratory event, but the question for us remains: how can we keep demanding so much of an arbitrary and therefore finite resource?
Central Oregon, with a growth rate hovering reliably over 3.5% annually, is filling up with people, many of them political and economic refugees from the unmitigated disaster of California, and because we are occasionally enchanted by an abundance of water we also aren’t discussing the most important long-term question: at what point do we reach critical mass?
Oregonians nurture a snarky and superior attitude toward most things California, but they don’t seem to be learning many of the lessons that California offers, and meaningful distinctions between the two states – from agricultural policies to in-house politics — are diminishing to the point of non-existence.
Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the freshman representative for New York’s 14thdistrict, has been routinely throat-punched in the media for some of her ill-considered pronouncements, but there are some underlying truths in her otherwise inarticulate crusade for a Green New Deal that we would be foolish to ignore. Because our resources are not infinite, and the sooner we wake up to that fact the better chance we have to avoid some very painful and potentially disastrous long-term outcomes. Starvation isn’t limited to east-Africa, and while reasonable people can argue endlessly about environmental issues, from fossil fuel exploitation to alternative energy projects, if there isn’t enough water to support the people where they want to live none of those discussions mean anything at all. And that fact alone – the unpredictability of future water resources in the west — opens a pandora’s box of ethical and environmental considerations that so far no one in political power has mustered the temerity to address in a meaningful way.
Except perhaps for Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, who has at least openly mentioned California’s “massive water problems,” and recently proposed a drinking water tax in California in order to create a “safe and affordable drinking water fund” for the southern San Joaquin Valley and the Mojave desert — where drinking water supplies are contaminated by toxins. Adding industrial agricultural pollution to already scant water supplies is a particularly modern conundrum with no end in sight because there will only ever be more and more people needing food, which requires more water, which isn’t easy to supply in the vast deserts of the American west. And, like most other things in California, the state government’s solution to the problem is a tax that likely won’t solve any problems at all.
Which is one reason the growth geniuses are now looking to tap the Cadiz Aquifer in the Mojave. As Scott Wilson from the Washington Post reported on March 3, 2019: “The aquifer is roughly the size of Rhode Island. Cadiz would draw water from the ground, pump it east through a proposed 43-mile pipeline to the Colorado River Aqueduct, then sell it to water districts as far as 200 miles away. An estimated 100,000 households could be customers during the project’s initial 50-year term, which would generate billions of dollars in revenue for the company.”
But the problem with drawing water from aquifers – aside from the Cadiz which is also happens to be federally protected land — is that in many cases it took 10–15,000 years for those aquifers to be created in the first place. What is the long-term proposal to recharge them in the age of climate change? Watering 100,000 households on that dubious resource for an initial 50-year term may sound appealing on the surface, but what about year 51? Or year 70? Should we just let our grandkids sort that out, or is the search for water like the search for oil, an endless exploration creating short-lived benefits and long-term catastrophe?
Human beings, and Americans in particular, have driven this phenomenon since the end of the First World War, and are remarkably short-sighted about our professed values. If we are to honor community and family and so many of the other tropes wrapped up in hot dogs and Chevrolet and the stars and stripes, then we must be smart and bold enough to address some very real questions about how we intend to preserve them in the long run as we stack millions of people into places that won’t sustain them.
There are undeniable limitations placed on us by natural planetary facts – which the natives understood in a culturally self-limiting way – that we ignore at our own peril. Our reliance on economic growth as the measuring stick for all things may instead lead to our own utter destruction. Because housing developments built on a fetishistic dream bely the fact that the resources that compose their foundation are exquisitely finite. No one can predict how much rain or snow we will get in the next 50 years, and if climate change is real and sustained over time then large portions of the American West may end up looking more like Timbuktu than the present-day metropolitan wonders of Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
This is a choice we are making. The question remains unanswered as to whether or not it is a wise one.
When my wife and I were first married we lived in Lake Almanor, California. She was a student where I was a teacher, at Lassen College, in nearby Susanville, California, in the remoter northeastern portion of the state. Our home at the Lake, nearest an area called Hamilton Branch, and not far from the small logging town of Chester, California, backed into the forest and was about ¼ mile from the water. The house we lived in was built by Wendy’s great-grandfather, who had made his future in the citrus groves of southern California as an early beneficiary of the LA aqueduct. He built a successful inland empire in the desert with that water, taking advantage of decent soil and perfect weather. But those groves are all gone now, given over to gargantuan housing developments that use far more water than the groves ever did.
And even Lake Almanor, which remains remote enough to have avoided some of the major tourist pitfalls of other pristine mountain towns in the northern Sierras, is a fake. Created by the construction of Canyon Dam, the lake occupies a valley once known as Big Meadow, and before that was home to many hundreds of generations of Maidu people who can’t even get federal recognition as a tribe despite 10,000 years of living in the mountain west. What fascinates me, as I contemplate the desert from my desk — while looking out at 3 feet of snow and a line of snow-snapped junipers in the yard — is that some 30 feet below the water of Lake Almanor sits the town of Prattville. Prattville is a quiet favorite among those hearty souls who are mountain lake divers, a kind of club on the order of cavers, and much like cavers are people who see the world with a very different awareness of its history. A good mountain diver can drop into Lake Almanor and fin between the submerged treetops of Big Meadow, or watch the fish swim through windows of the Prattville General Store.
In the modern west we have as many challenges as we do options. We can teach the truth or we can teach fundamental lies that make us all feel better when we’re waiting on tenterhooks for the final season of Game of Thrones and the climactic battle between the White Walkers and the Army of the Living. We can choose to embrace certain realities the planet offers us, or we can ignore them. If history is our guide it seems likely we will ignore them. And if we ignore them then we are foolish, but we will at least have our snarky memes, and our conflicts of politics and religion (or the even more rabid insistence on no religion at all) and sunshine daydreams about economic growth and ease, and our flimsy notions of a sustainable future. We will have all of that. But only one thing remains absolutely certain: without enough water, cool clear water, we will eventually share the same drastic future, or hand it off to our grandchildren — whatever our most passionately held beliefs may happen to be.
Steve Erickson says
Yep. Sums it up nicely I’d say.
Craig Rullman says
I am almost done with “Stealhead Fly Fishing”. Life changing. One of the most fascinating things I’ve ever read, actually. Thank you for that, my friend.
Right on the mark!
Craig Rullman says
Thank you Thom.
Cherie Northon says
Craig, this is an excellent article. And , you are right about people not facing this situation. I lived through water rationing when in Berkeley, and I am very leery about water shortages. Even though some people can’t appreciate it, I am so glad to have great resources here in Alaska. With that being said, we cannot squander what we have. Water is not unlimited, and you can’t drink gold. Sadly, the fact that there is a good snow pack can give the naysayers a “see, the drought is over” perspective.
And, loved reading about my old Chester stomping grounds.
Craig Rullman says
Thanks Cherie. Sadly, its almost certain there will be water rationing again, only this time the shares will be even smaller because there are so many more people. Chester is a great place, some very fond memories. Did you ever make it out to Drakesbad?
Paul McNamee says
I think humans have out ostriched the ostriches when it comes to burying their heads in the sand.
Craig Rullman says
Indeed. The bill may not come due on our watch, but our grandchildren and their children are in for a wild ride.
John M Roberts says
Have you read “Cadillac Desert” (1986) by Marc Reisner? It’s a blistering account of America’s botched (and downright felonious) Western water policy, with an in-depth account of the Owens Valley water scam (basis of the classic neo-noir “Chinatown.) It also explains how, paradoxically, the series of hydroelectric western dams, intended to be purely a for-profit scam, turned out to be so important to the mass production of aluminum that, without them, it can be argued that the Allies could not have won WWII. It’s a fascinating book and really kicked off the modern consciousness of the water crisis.
Craig Rullman says
Yes, terrific book. And I am intimately familiar with the Owens Valley story — my family has deep roots there. In times of abundance consciousness fades even if the overall crisis continues to get worse. Thanks, John.
Jim Cornelius says
I did a lot of backpacking out of Independence and Lone Pine when I was living in LA in my 20s. There was a palpable hostility and resentment of LA in Owens Valley that could readily be felt.
Craig Rullman says
Outlaws and Indians.
Saddle Tramp says
Just read a review of Oregonian Barry Lopez’s latest and upcoming HORIZON in March issue of Men’s Journal. It speaks very loudly on this subject. Might be worthwhile in seeking it out…
Craig Rullman says
I am a big fan of Lopez’s work, and most certainly will seek it out.
Saddle Tramp says
The takeaway quote from the interview with Barry:
“A Navajo guy once told me that he was asked to offer an assessment of another Navajo, and paused and said, ‘His life helped.’ What more would you want on your gravestone.”
Thom Eley says
Fantastic quote Saddle Tramp!