Whenever I do some serious backpacking I’m reminded of the central importance of water to our existence, particularly here in the American West. The earliest articulate description of the problem was made by Colonel John Wesley Powell (1834-1902), the famous ethnologist and geologist who was the first to run the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Powell warned that the 100th meridian of latitude is the “dry line” in the U.S., as areas to the west of this line generally receive less than 20 inches of rain a year. As a result he believed the West was not suitable for agricultural development, except for about 2 percent of the lands that were near water sources. He proposed irrigation systems, conservation and low-density, open grazing. The railroad companies, who stood to profit from agricultural development, aggressively lobbied Congress to reject Powell’s policy recommendations and encourage farming. They based their policy on the bogus theory that “rain follows the plow”. Powell’s recommendations were largely ignored until the Dust Bowl of the 1920s and 1930s, which brought untold suffering to thousands of small subsistence farmers, validated his theories.
I recently returned from spending a few days backpacking in the vicinity of Mt. Whitney which overlooks Owens Valley, known as the Switzerland of California. The valley is about seventy-five miles long and runs between the eleven-thousand-foot Inyo Mountains to the east and the fourteen-thousand-foot Sierra Nevada to the west, which contains the Mt. Whitney Massif. The Owens River runs down the length of the valley into Owens Lake at the southern end of the valley. In his definitive work on the water crisis in the West, “Cadillac Dessert: The American West and its Disappearing Water” Marc Reisner relates the disgraceful story of how Los Angeles stole the water that flowed through Owens Valley to ensure that the city became the megalopolis it is today.
A desert is a place that receives ten inches of rainfall or less a year. Los Angeles receives an average of eight inches of rain per year and native water supplies can support no more than a million people at best. Consequently in 1898 Frederick Eaton, the mayor of Los Angeles, appointed his friend William Mulholland, a self-taught engineer, as superintendant of the Los Angeles City Water Company. The two men wanted to turn Los Angeles, then a growing city of one hundred thousand people, into a city that would rival New York and Chicago in terms of wealth, population and power. The only problem was that they would need to steal water from somewhere to achieve this. Backed by a syndicate of powerful investors including Harrison Gray Otis, the publisher of the Los Angeles Times, they used “chicanery, subterfuge, spies, bribery, a campaign of divide-and-conquer, and a strategy of lies”, in short, the usual toolbox of political corruption, to buy up land and water rights in Owens Valley which they ended up selling to Los Angeles for an enormous profit. The withdrawal of water to Los Angeles drained Owens Lake and turned the valley into a desert where farming and ranching became impossible. In an act of desperation, Owens Valley residents dynamited the aqueduct taking water to Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. This California “water war” formed the basis for Roman Polanski’s classic film noir of the seventies, Chinatown, starring Jack Nicholson.
Closely related to the word “river” is “rival”. According to the Online Etymological Dictionary the notion is one of the competitiveness of neighbors. Indeed it is thought by many that the key wars of the 21st century will be fought over water. In 2008 UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said “Too often, where we need water, we find guns…As the global economy grows, so will its thirst…Many more conflicts lie over the horizon.” In “The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Fresh Water in the Twenty-First Century” Alex Prud’homme notes that rivers are especially likely to be flashpoints because those upstream can control flows to those downstream. He claims that “The UN has warned that strife over shared rivers – especially the Nile, Niger, Volta, and Zambezi – has the potential to erupt into armed conflict. Others have pointed to tensions over the Tigris and the Euphrates as a likely catalyst to violence.” He goes on to say that in 1998 Turkey and Syria nearly went to war over water and water has long been considered a lethal strategic weapon in Korea. He is particularly concerned that China, which has been negotiating with Ethiopia for use of its agricultural land, which lies upstream from Egypt, might one day attempt to divert water from the Nile to the fields it plants in Ethiopia. Prud’homme concludes that “it is nations such as China, India, Pakistan, and the rising “Tigers” of Southeast Asia – nations finding economic success while faced with increasing demands for water and food – whose potential for conflict seems most real.”
“The first rule of water is that it flows uphill, towards money and power.” Edward Moran, attorney general of Mono County
“Whisky’s for drinking, water’s for fighting.” Attributed to Mark Twain