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It's Still a Desert

October 20, 2003

Drought hit Southern California just as a deluge of people were pouring into the area in the early 1920s. The city's boosters no longer could count on their Owens Valley water supply to meet growth demands. Without a new water source, wrote historian Remi A. Nadeau, the next drought could have meant the loss of lives, not just crops.

In October 1923, Los Angeles water chief William Mulholland led a contingent of city officials and engineers to a bleak spot by the Colorado River outside Las Vegas and declared: "There's where we get our water."

"There" became the site of Hoover Dam, later connected to coastal Southern California by the Metropolitan Water District's 242-mile-long Colorado River Aqueduct in 1941. The water fed an expanding metropolis and fueled the defense establishment that helped win World War II. On Thursday, state, local and federal water officials went back to ratify another landmark water plan that, in its way, may have as indelible an effect on California. Gov. Gray Davis, Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton and others signed a Colorado River agreement to settle a 70-year dispute between farm and city groups in California and between California and the six other states in the Colorado River basin.

Overlooking the dam, Norton said, "The philosophy of the last century was just 'move the water.' In this century, we have to use the water more wisely." The agreement recognizes that some of the water needed to meet urban growth will have to come from farms. In this case, urban San Diego will receive enough water from Imperial Valley farmlands to meet the annual household needs of 400,000 families.

There is resistance in Imperial County, with understandable fears about effects on the farm economy. But the alternative for the Imperial Irrigation District was a protracted legal battle with the federal government over whether it was wasting water -- a battle Imperial was doomed to lose. The handsome price Imperial farmers are to receive will pay for more efficient irrigation methods as well as for the fallowing of some land, the saved water going to San Diego.

The farmers are afraid the cities will just keep coming back when they need more. However, no one is going to "steal" the water the way Los Angeles took the Owens Valley's supply in the early part of the last century. The pattern of dealing with willing sellers is established. Water districts are also finally diversifying their supplies with reclaimed water, storage of surplus water captured in underground basins and desalinization of seawater. Cities in turn need to increase conservation, particularly by encouraging water-miser landscaping.

Southern California is still a desert and its lifestyle and economy still depend on slender silver threads of water flowing from hundreds of miles away. Even though the supply is subtly shifting from farms to cities, there is not enough to waste.

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