February 17, 2012
The classic argument against Southern Californian development has always been the issue of water. Many feel that an area of such inadequate resources should never have been allowed to become the economic super power that it was allowed to become. As Reisner stated in his book Cadillac Desert:
“The whole state thrives, even survives, by moving water from where it is, and presumably isn’t needed, to where it isn’t, and presumably is needed. No other state has done as much to fructify its deserts, make over its flora and fauna, and rearrange the hydrology God gave it. No other place has put as many people where they probably have no business being. There is no place like it anywhere on earth. Thirty-one million people (more than the population of Canada), an economy richer than all but seven nations’ in the world, one third of the table food grown in the United States—and none of it remotely conceivable within the preexisting natural order” (Reisner, 333).
In order to meet the incredible demands of city development and agriculture, massive dam and reclamation projects have been undertaken to satisfy these needs over the course of California’s history. Despite their ability to combat water scarcity issues, dams and their construction have brought about a variety concerns. Habitat destruction, the displacement of people, the incredible cost of their construction, and their potential for failure resulting in the loss of human life and property are all commonly held criticisms against damming. Regardless, it is inarguable that extensive measures need to be taken to reconcile human needs with resource scarcity. Having reached the point where our water resources are nearing their limits, we may have to more aggressively consider strategies involving conservation and efficiency as opposed to simple expansion of water systems. However, the traditional path has been the later, bringing water from places of abundance to places in need.
The Central Valley Project is a Federal water project devised in 1933 by the Bureau of Reclamation, to help address the growing water demands of the growers and the depletion of the San Joaquin Valley ground water. Ironically however, by bringing them more water the farmers were enabled to expand their industry and ground waters were even further exploited. This necessitated yet another water development to meet this need, the California State Water Project.
It is interesting to see that in California we are continuing in similar trends whereby our growth leads to increased water needs, and when we eventually address such needs, we respond with further growth and a renewed need for water. A Public Policy report released by the public policy institute of California argues that our current model is largely insufficient to meet California’s growing needs. This scarcity of water they claim has led to increased competition among agricultural and urban water users. This they believe has further contributed to issues of water quality and ecological degradation. The current system also leaves us fairly vulnerable to events such as drought or flood. This report instead proposes that measures be taken to more closely monitor and regulate our water resources with an increased concern for environmental impacts. Conservation efforts also contribute largely to their strategy. Reconsidering how water is priced was one suggestion they made for encouraging conservation on the part of both individuals and industry. Regardless of how we attempt to implement water conservation efforts, it is becoming increasingly clear that unrestricted water consumption and indefinite expansion of water systems cannot be a part of California’s long-term strategy.
The policies implemented by California throughout the 19th century helped to establish a viable and continuous water supply that would be able to support a growing population, especially one that is likely to surpass 38 million by 2012 in an arid region naturally unfit for a community that size. It also coincided with a time when funding needs for water projects were easily met. Damming was initially thought to be an effective solution to providing a sustainable water yield to California because of its ability to provide cheaper electricity, create reservoirs for periods of extended drought, as well as preventing floods and regulating late runoff. It also has the ability to alter the flow-path of major rivers and transport that water across long distances. However, with any project of that magnitude, there are serious environmental repercussions that have surfaced in the past, and with such little room for error in the design and construction phases, it’s not hard to imagine how and why dams have failed and pose such a threat to everything positioned downstream and in the surrounding vicinities.
With dams came a ‘high risk; high reward’ scenario, and the collapse of the Baldwin Hills Reservoir in 1963 serves as a good example of the type of risk that creates such controversy over these types of water projects. The effect of the subsidence of a nearby oil field led to the failure of the reservoir, leading to the destruction of 277 homes and 5 lives. Understanding the science is key to lowering the amount of risk, and it has been proven time and time again throughout history to be greatly underestimated. The $100 million dollar loss that came about in 1976 during the filling phase of the Teton Dam in Idaho serves as another perfect example favoring the ‘high risk” scenario. Poor construction led to a face that was easily eroded and eventually compromised the dam’s structural integrity, causing it to collapse. It was a costly oversight that goes to show how little was actually understood about the hydrogeology of the region and what environmental effects would surface in the wake of such large-scale changes to the land. It also shows how unprepared we are and have been in the past for such catastrophic events to occur. It is this lack of knowledge that ultimately allows for the small errors to cause large disasters.
In general, improvements in the design and construction phases of massive water projects in the U.S. have gotten better with time, but after bearing witness to the plethora of negative effects from dams, both ecological and anthropogenic, one can see why the hard path approach to secure higher quantities of water creates more opportunities for problems. By using the soft path approach to better utilize and conserve water, we will improve, as a society, our ability to sustainably use our resources and lower the risks we pose to ourselves and the environment.
This post was written by Jeffrey Nakashioya ’12 who is pursuing a BS in Environmental Studies and Genivieve McCormick ’12 who is pursuing a BS in Environmental Studies.
Hannak, Ellen, Jay Lund, and Areil Dinar. Managing California’s Water: From Conflicts to Resolution. Public Policy Institure of California, 2011.
The following link includes the film Cadillac Desert, broken into 6-7min YouTube clips. These videos are also available as VHS cassettes from most public libraries.