Few things divide people more quickly than the struggle to capture, convey and consume water to sustain their lives. When the appetite for water exceeds the available supplies, attitudes , pricing and policies shift dramatically from amicable accord to fierce intensity. Whether the place be in Kurdistan, Palestine, Egypt of Brazil the effort to seek and secure adequate water supplies embody an explosive potential that makes agreements all the more necessary.
Thus Norris Hundley's excellent history of our countries largest state with respect to water resources is a welcome revision of his excellent study and should be read by anyone interested in law, politics and the exercise of power to subdue public passions. Placed in the context of history the legal battle between California and Arizona, for example over the outflow of the Colorado river is but a piece of an enduring dilemma of how to divide the common estate we recognize exists in liquid wealth.
In seven crisply focused chapters and a pithy concluding reflection on the meaning of these contests over irrigation, agriculture, industrialization and engineering in California, the book spans three centuries in depth from pre-contact aboriginal conditions to the present disputes over virtually every supply source for those states 35 million thirsty consumers. The Great Thirst, Californians and Water: A History is a gripping account of the means and ends of controlling water for settlement from pastoral through agricultural to industrial uses for water.
This is no mere environmental jeremiad on how senseless outcomes of political struggles lead to even further depletion of a resource. Water as a common property resources belongs to everyone but is rendered a utility by anyone who can afford to deliver it to a needy buyer. Hundley reveals the myriad consequences of the fight to possess the state's rainfall, groundwater, runoff and surface storage capacity. All of these collective features Hundley calls the waterscape, a handy frame of reference for the geographical contours and collective features that are the product of and transmitters of water from the mountains to the sea. Long "before massive dams and aqueducts," He suggests, "California's rivers flowed uninterrupted into valleys, marshes, bays and the ocean." supporting "an abundance of fish, game and waterfowl as well as beaver and otter." Sustaining this cornucopia he correctly asserts that "The source of all this water is the Pacific Ocean." (pp. 5 & 9)
Of the considerable supply of rain, snow, ice and fog that bathe the Cascades and Sierra Nevada Mountains, the foothills and coastal ranges Hundley reminds us that over three-fourths is utilized by agriculture with the remaining quarter municipally consumed. (Ibid.)
J. V. Siry
Drought map available from the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA.