What if…

By David Carle
Excerpted from Water and the California Dream: Choices for the New Millennium
(Sierra Club Books, 2003)

“Just how important the citrus belt has been in changing the physical appearance of the land can only be sensed by trying to imagine what Southern California would be like were these green belts removed. They have contributed as much, perhaps, as any single factor to the physical charm of the region.” McWilliams, 1946

“I used to like this town. A long time ago. There were trees along Wilshire Boulevard. Beverly Hills was a country town. Westwood was bare hills and lots offering at eleven hundred dollars and no takers. Hollywood was a bunch of frame houses on the interurban line. Los Angeles was just a big dry sunny place with ugly homes and no style, but good-hearted and peaceful.” Raymond Chandler’s L.A. detective Phillip Marlowe, in The Little Sister, 1949

“The pilot has turned on the seat belt sign, as we make our final approach to the Los Angeles airport. Please return trays and seats to the upright position, and prepare for landing. Local air temperature is 67 degrees on this last day of 1999. Happy New Year to you all, and fly our airline again, soon, in the new millennium.”

Out the window, as the plane banks, the snow-capped peaks of the San Gabriel mountains make a backdrop to geometric lines of orchards and rows of field crops. Town centers poke their multi-story buildings above the rural landscape, like sand castles punctuating an expanse of otherwise flat beach. I close the internet connection on my laptop computer and crane to see the ocean as the plane completes its turn. There, off-shore, through the famous clean air of Southern California, Catalina Island pops up on the southwest horizon. The tourist families near me are talking about their beach vacation.

“Oh, we’ve tried Florida, but the crowds are so bad. Southern California may offer less to do, without all the amusement parks that Florida has, but we like clean beaches. Not so awfully crowded. We always take some California oranges home with us, of course, when we go home. What’s that? Northern California? Oh, the Bay Area’s OK, but overbuilt. We drove from San Francisco across the Central Valley once, to Yosemite, and that whole corridor is just too much congestion and smog, you know?”


Strip away, in your imagination, all that came with the water imported from the Eastern Sierra. Set aside, for a moment, knowledge that additional water imports would follow after 1940. Visualize an alternate reality, some parallel universe, where Los Angeles moved through the twentieth century on a different path. There would still have been oil discoveries in the 1920s. Once the oil fields were depleted they may have reverted to sheep ranches, rather than water-dependent subdivisions. A man-made harbor would probably have been developed serving Los Angeles, though not as busy as today’s. The Second World War would have brought some west coast military installations, but wartime and postwar military industry would go to regions with a larger work force population, perhaps in Northern California. Freeways? They certainly would have come, but fewer in number, carrying far fewer cars. The entire region would be under less concrete and subject to very little smog. In the year 2000, details of life would differ, of course, from in the first decades of the century. But with 500,000 people (instead of 3.5 million) in the City of Los Angeles, those differences brought by modern technology and conveniences would be experienced in a setting that had much more in common with life in Los Angeles a century earlier.

The rest of Southern California, in this scenario, would have felt less pressure to convert agricultural land to subdivisions. Overdrafting groundwater wells that served much of that agriculture would have become a critical issue. As the coastal plain’s underground freshwater was over-pumped, saltwater intrusion would have been a problem. But those same problems developed and are being addressed in other California coastal basins today. Though irrigated acreage might have declined, better water conservation practices and groundwater recharging technologies may have become the norm in Southern California’s citrus belt. Meanwhile, the natural environment may have survived intact in more locations around the fringes of this relatively minor metropolitan region.

Southern California’s population increases after the early 1900s, beyond limits set by local sources, were possible only because of imported water. People who only know the Los Angeles of the 21st Century may struggle with that concept. Surely the development of the mega-city, the reality of that vibrant sprawling global force known as L.A., was inevitable, wasn’t it? The City certainly must have been fated to grow, sooner or later, some way or another. And what about those population figures? Where does the city population number of 500,000 come from? William Mulholland, after all, declared that without imported water the City could only sustain a population of 100,000. That, as history showed, was electioneering exaggeration, however. Mulholland’s contemporaries in the City’s water agency, DWP, acknowledge that local water sources – the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers and groundwater – could support about a half-million people (LADWP, 1988). (By the 1990s, actually, such effective water conservation measures were introduced in Los Angeles that a common estimate for the number of urban users served by an acre-foot of water could be adjusted from 5, up to 7 or 8. If water conservation became the general practice, perhaps as many as 800,000 people could live in Los Angeles using local supplies.)

If an alternative historic path had been chosen for Los Angeles, life in the City would be far different. What would the rest of California be like in that reality? Could the state’s overall population approach anything like the current 38 million, if only 3 million were in Southern California (instead of the 19 million that region holds today)? It seems more probable that those people, today, would be spread among other states or other nations. It is certain that they could not be in Los Angeles. The state’s largest cities would be in northern California. Urbanization around San Francisco Bay would probably not be any more extensive–it is saturated today, but development there might have been accelerated without the economic competition of the southern state. Urban sprawl into the agricultural regions of the Central Valley might be more widespread than today.

It is intriguing to imagine the Eastern Sierra as it might be if Owens River water had remained in its natural watershed. The Owens Valley town of Bishop might, today, be an urban center, though not the equivalent of Los Angeles. There is little reason to conclude that 500,000 acre-feet of water, used for 3 million people in Los Angeles, would inevitably transform the Owens Valley into an urban nightmare of that same scale. Location and climate are important differences.

One hundred and fifty miles north of Bishop, in the Eastern Sierra, is Carson City, Nevada. The two towns share a similar climate and setting, with agriculture still dominating valley lands near Carson City. Nevada’s state capitol is at 4660 feet above sea level; Bishop at 4147 feet. Annual precipitation averages only 5.76 inches in Bishop, but is 10.75 inches in Carson City. The Owens River flows past Bishop, while a similar river, the Carson, brings melting snowwater to the agricultural fields of the Carson Valley and the urban and suburban zones of Carson City. The population of Carson City is 54,000. Agriculture, including dairy and cattle ranching, has persisted near Carson City, but is under pressure from sprawling subdivisions (ironically, most newcomers are emigrating Californians escaping their overcrowded state.)

If the U.S. Reclamation Bureau had gone ahead with local irrigation development in the Eastern Sierra, enough assurance might have been added regarding water availability in dry years to spread more permanent cultivation, instead of intermittently irrigated pastures. More non-forage crops like wheat, corn, fruit trees, and vegetables might have been grown in the Eastern Sierra, assuming the place of alfalfa and irrigated pasture. Modern reclamation technology and a bigger local population would have meant a strong local market for farmers. “Owens Valley with its rich soils and abundant water resources offered a far more likely prospect for agricultural development in 1900 than did the peat bogs of the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta, the barren lands of the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, or the forbidding wastes of the Colorado Desert, all of which rank today among the richest centers of agricultural production in California” (Kahrl, Water and Power, 1982).

Yet not all of the Owens Valley soil is fertile. Much of it is alkaline or rocky, and with the region’s harsh climate, farmers on lands of lesser quality might have been inclined to sell out to developers. Industry might have invaded the area. The valley could, today, be fighting air quality issues as severe as those in modern Los Angeles. Owens Valley would still have the scenery, but might have congestion and pollution too.

As for its evolution into a service economy for recreational travelers, if there was no enormous population of southern Californians just five hours to the south, the attractive mountain resorts would draw fewer people into the region.

The fate of Owens Lake is worth speculating about, because it touches on human nature and the way environmental controversies are resolved. In 1874 the deepest point of that salty, inland sea was measured, from a steamboat, as 51 feet. But the lake naturally experienced wide fluctuations during wet and dry cycles. In that desert climate, an incredible six vertical feet of water were evaporated away every year. Since the lake was quite shallow, a ten-foot drop could cut the lake’s surface area in half. So, as farmers upstream diverted Owens River water to agriculture, Owens Lake quickly showed the effects, particularly in dry years. In 1899, the wharf that had served the steamboat was two miles away from a dropping shore. Los Angeles’ complete diversion of the Owens River, before it reached the lake, was the ultimate reason why the lake dried entirely by the 1920s.

Were Owens Valley irrigators going to kill Owens Lake anyway? Perhaps. Other farm communities destroyed major bodies of water through irrigation diversions. But the problems that followed, the loss of waterfowl and dust storms, would have been felt locally, and local diverters would have been directly affected, or directly under the pressure of the neighboring communities. A solution would have been forthcoming much more easily and rapidly than was possible for Eastern Sierra communities negotiating with a distant landlord, the City of Los Angeles.

In our imaginary, alternative reality, Bishop’s small town atmosphere might be lost. But one should never forget the Los Angeles basin within that same scenario. Southern California might still be a wonderful place; the images that sold the California Dream might still be essentially true. Honesty and self-interest make considering such historic alternatives a worthwhile exercise. Californians shape alternative futures every day. The future is no more inevitable now, no less a matter of choice, than it was throughout the last 150 years of California’s statehood. If there is good still to be found in the California Dream, it too can be squandered, if the lessons of history are ignored.

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