California Water: ‘The Way of Seizure and Exploitation’

A snippet from “American Places,” a 1981 book of essays by Wallace Stegner, novelist and chronicler of the West, and his like-styled son, Page. This is from a chapter Page Stegner wrote called “Here It Is: Take It.” It describes how Los Angeles siphoned off a rich, remote supply of water from the Owens Valley and details the valley’s ongoing disputes with the city. (The chapter title is taken from the words spoken in 1913 by William Mulholland, the principal architect of the Los Angeles water system, when he opened the valve that brought the first Owens Valley water to the L.A.) I can’t help but think of the current court and legislative disputes over California water when I read this. s

“…The American Way of seizure and exploitation has a long history but a dubious future. It has produced ghost towns before this when the resource ran out and the frenzy cooled and the fortune-hunters drifted away. Without suggesting that Los Angeles will become a ghost town, one knows that in the arid West there are many communities whose growth is strictly limited by the available water. To promote the growth of any community beyond its legitimate and predictable water resources is to risk one of two things: eventual slowdown or collapse and retrenchment to more realistic levels, or a continuing and often piratical engrossment of the water of other communities, at the expense of their prosperity and perhaps life.

Man, the great creator and destroyer of environments, is also part of what he creates or destroys, and rises and falls with it. In the West, water is life. From the very beginning, when people killed each other with shovels over the flow of a primitive ditch, down to the present, when cities kill each other for precisely the same reasons and with the same self-justification, water is the basis for western growth, western industry, western communities, Eventually, some larger authority, state or federal will have to play Solomon in these disputes. …”

We’ve got a Solomon of sorts–at least one of them–working on the problem now: U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger of Fresno. But more on that later.

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