National Geographic : 2010 Apr
• northern Californians have seen the mammoth project as just one more water grab by the state's crowded, parched south. Southern Californians see it as, by and large, the key to their continued prosperity and survival. If built, the Peripheral Canal would be the latest link in a Rube Goldberg system of pumps, pipes, dams, tunnels, and canals constructed over the past century that now slake the thirst of more than two-thirds of the state's popula- tion. e system also waters nearly all the state's eight million acres of irrigated cropland as well as the tenth largest economy on Earth---in a climate that varies from temperate rain forest in the northwest to true desert in the south. It's probably no coincidence that Goldberg, a car- toonist famous for drawing absurdly complex machines, began his career as a water and sewer engineer for the city of San Francisco. The reason behind the convoluted system is simple math. Roughly 70 percent of Cali- fornia's available water falls as rain or snow in the less populated north. Meanwhile, 80 per- cent of the demand lies in the southern two- thirds of the state, much of which gets just a few inches of rain a year. Former governor Pat Brown, who some 40 years ago built the Califor- nia Aqueduct to connect the delta to southern California's cities, said he did so to "correct an accident of people and geography." But as anyone familiar with the state's frac- tious water history will tell you, southern California's ever swelling population was no accident. Rather, it was the result of numer- ous audacious water projects designed to keep people coming. " e value of our homes, busi- nesses, and the security of our jobs all depend upon an ample water supply," shouts a 1928 government lm made to whip up support for an aqueduct from the Colorado River. "If we are to survive and to grow, we must have the water that will enable us to maintain our mastery of the desert!" at mastery began in the early 1900s, a er shallow aquifers and seasonal rivers could no longer sustain Los Angeles. Out of despera- tion, city engineers began buying up land and water rights in the Owens Valley, east of the Sierra Nevada. In 1913 they completed the 223- mile-long Los Angeles Aqueduct, which sent the entire ow of the Owens River south to the growing city. Within a decade Owens Lake became a dust bowl, and the desert scrubland of the San Fernando Valley was worth millions. e infamous water grab--- ctionalized in the 1974 lm Chinatown---addicted Los Angeles to water imports and inspired in the rest of the state a deep-seated mistrust of the city that lin- gers to this day. e heyday of California water development began in the late 1930s with construction of the colossal Central Valley Project, or CVP. To get water from the wet north to the dry south, the federal Bureau of Reclamation took advan- tage of the fact that the state's two largest rivers, the Sacramento and San Joaquin, funnel vast amounts of runo from the High Sierra into a shared delta the size of Rhode Island. By build- ing a big pumping station in the delta at Tracy and connecting it to nearly 500 miles of canals south of the delta, the CVP became a lifeline for the Central Valley. Today it waters more than 10 percent of the entire country's irrigated farm- land and enables California to produce fully half the nation's fruits, nuts, and vegetables. e 1960s brought the State Water Project (SWP), which includes the Oroville Dam, another pumping plant near Tracy, and the 444-mile- long California Aqueduct. e SWP now serves 23 million Californians, from north of the Bay Area to the Mexican border, and irrigates 755,000 acres of farmland. e Peripheral Canal was supposed to be the system's nal link, a liquid superhighway around Joel Bourne reported on California's redwoods in the October issue. Toronto-based Edward Burtynsky specializes in photographing industrial landscapes. A major earthquake could slash water supplies for two-thirds of Californians.