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Water in the West

January 23, 1986

Wallace Stegner, a fine author, has written a mournful article (Opinion, Dec. 29), "Water in the West: Growing Beyond Nature's Limits," on the despoliation of the West. He would have the arid areas remain arid for spiritual and artistic purposes. His underlying premise is that what nature wrought man should not change. This is certainly an attractive thesis until we consider the remainder of the equation--the abode and sustenance of man.

How development proceeds today depends on a myriad of decisions by public agencies, businesses, and individuals. While we can all agree the result has not been a total success, what system, in a democracy, would replace the collective judgment of various interests? Who is to decide where an individual resides?

There is no question, looking from hindsight, that much development is mistaken. No better example comes to mind than the movers and shakers of the San Francisco area utilizing "a second Yosemite," the Hetch-Hetchy Valley, to store water, thereby destroying an irreplaceable natural treasure.

On the other hand, much development is reasonble, that is, it represents a balance between preservation and change; between maintaining the natural environment and satisfying human needs.

We can test Stegner's thesis by modeling the West as he prefers it and asking where the "excess" people should live and what the effect would be on the natural environment of that region. Is there, in other words, an area where despoilment is more appropriate than in some other area? And if there is, who establishes the criteria?

Just to bring the issue closer to home, we must observe that the city of Los Altos Hills, the residence of Stegner, by nature alone would have an insufficient local water supply to support its population. It, like most of the conservationist-oriented San Francisco Bay area, taps the Sierra streams bringing that water to the Bay Area just as the Central Valley and Southern California tap other California waters.

Stegner's concerns should properly draw sympathy and serious consideration and much of his criticism is on target. But his article falls short in offering a basic solution to the question of balance between man and nature. Simply, desiring that Congress become a "Redeemer" (by whose standards?) is not the answer.


Santa Ana

Wieder, an Orange County supervisor, is chairman of the Southern California Water Committee.

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