Watermark: Along the California Aqueduct

Scenes from the frontlines of the water wars, where California is confronting the limits of its extraordinary prosperity.


One cannot be pessimistic about the West. This is the native home of hope. When it fully learns that cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the quality that most characterizes and preserves it, then it will have achieved itself and outlived its origins. Then it has a chance to create a society to match its scenery.
— Wallace Stegner, The Sound of Mountain Water 1

Here is the essential point: California has never had enough water. The current drought is simply the latest evidence that this is a dry land, not “susceptible of supporting a very large population,” as an American military officer wrote in the 1840s. 2 But of course the region has shown itself more than susceptible of supporting — or at least attracting — a very large population. Modern California, with almost forty million people, and the largest economy in the United States, has seemed again and again to overcome the limits of its natural environment.

Modern California is in fact an extraordinary achievement. To make a semi-arid region not only habitable but also prosperous and abundant has required massive and sustained geo-engineering — the construction, over generations, of a complex network of reservoirs and dams, of aqueducts, tunnels, and canals, of pumping stations and treatment plants, much of which is dedicated not only to harvesting, storing, and supplying water but also to transporting it from where it originates, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, to where it is needed, in the great coastal cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles and the farmlands of the Central Valley.

The history of this achievement has been amply documented, from the mid 19th-century settlement of the Central Valley and its development into one of the most highly managed agricultural landscapes on the planet, what historian Kevin Starr has called “the most productive unnatural landscape in the world” 3; to the diversion of Owens Lake, in the eastern Sierras, a century ago, to provide water for the growing metropolis of Los Angeles; to the flooding of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, in Yosemite, to create the reservoir that for decades has served San Francisco, more than 150 miles to the west. 4

The success of California’s water system has produced a wicked tangle of problems.
But the very success of this achievement has produced a wicked tangle of problems which are not only ecological and environmental but also political, economic, and legal. Hetch-Hetchy Dam was controversial from the start (early opponents included the Sierra Club and its founder John Muir) and remains so today, with activists clamoring for the restoration of the valley. Owens Lake enabled the rise of L.A. but was eventually pumped dry and became, as Karen Piper put it in an article in this journal, “a howling wasteland of toxic dust.” And the transformation of the 450-mile-long, 50-mile-wide Central Valley from a region of shallow lakes and vast marshes into a gridded geometry of irrigated farmlands has required the pumping of enormous amounts of groundwater, which has led to soil subsidence and heaved roads and fractured canals. More ominously, it has led to depletion of the Valley aquifer; because groundwater pumping is unregulated, it’s unclear how much fresh water now remains, but already farmers are digging deeper and deeper wells and depending upon increasingly saline water to irrigate their orchards and fields. And along the way, the state’s increasingly sophisticated capacity to move and manage water has been accompanied by an increasingly complex and irreconcilable series of legal agreements, from unquantifiable principles like “first in time, first in right” (1848) and “reasonable use” (1886), to “safe yield” (1903) and “public trust” (1930), to the more recent “co-equal goals” (2010). 5 Unsurprisingly these have proven contentious and led to the ongoing water wars that have defined the state’s politics and determined its economy.

Map of California showing average annual precipitation and key locations along the State Water Project. Click image to zoom. [Katherine Jenkins]

Map of California showing major populations centers, existing and historic aqueducts, and irrigated land. Click image to zoom. [Katherine Jenkins]

Katherine Jenkins’s photographs — taken along the California Aqueduct, which carries Sierra Nevada snowmelt southward via a network of dams, reservoirs, channels, and pumping plants, beginning in the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta and ending in Lake Perris — depict what you might call scenes from the frontlines of the water wars. The reservoir of Lake Oroville, at a quarter of its capacity; the San Luis Reservoir at nineteen percent. A dessicated cornfield in the Delta. A pipe that’s run dry in abandoned farmlands near Lost Hills, west of Bakersfield, and a pomegranate orchard sprouting from the parched earth, also in Lost Hills. Pipe arrays climbing treeless slopes. A dry canal. In all these scenes we see a system that’s at once powerful, built to get water “to where it is needed,” and tenuous, as it runs up against non-negotiable limits.

In these photographs, we see a system that’s at once powerful and tenuous.
The historian Leo Marx has argued that the concept of technology refers not simply to machines but also to the ways in which industrial innovations have “transform[ed] the fundamental conditions of life.” 6 In this sense technology refers also to logistics bureaucracies and capital resources, to political negotiations and legal agreements — and indeed to the American narratives of progress, control, and destiny. But now to this list we need to add strategies for environmental adaptation and disaster mitigation. Jenkins’s photographs might be viewed as a kind of visible inventory of these abstract practices and processes, a record of some of the artifacts by which California has, to use Stegner’s terms, “achieved itself.” But now it’s clear that if the state is to “outlive its origins,” future development will need to reconcile longstanding water interests with ecological imperatives that have emerged more lately. For as Stegner also wrote, “Even an oasis civilization, if it tinkers enough with the environment, may be in danger of depleting and destroying it.” 7

  1. Wallace Stegner, The Sound of Mountain Water: The Changing American West (original publication, 1969, reprint New York: E.P. Dutton, 1980), 38.
  2. Henry A. Wise, Los Gringos: Or, an Inside View of Mexico and California(New York: Baker and Scribner, 1849), 39.
  3. Kevin Starr, Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003 (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), 490.
  4. See Philip Garone, The Fall and Rise of the Wetlands of California’s Great Central Valley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).
  5. See “Floods, Droughts and Lawsuits: A Brief History of California Water,” in Ellen Hanak, Jay Lund, Ariel Dinar, Brian Gray, Richard Howitt, Jeffrey Mount, Peter Moyle, and Barton “Buzz” Thompson, Managing California’s Water: From Conflict to Reconciliation (Public Policy Institute of California, 2011).
  6. Leo Marx, “Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept,” in Technology and Culture, vol. 51, no. 3, July 2010, 561-577.
  7. Stegner, The Sound of Mountain Water, 11.
Photographs by Katherine Jenkins; text by John Bass, “Watermark: Along the California Aqueduct,” Places Journal, August 2015. Accessed 02 Oct 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/150825

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