Orange County Register
“What do we do with this worthless area, the region of savages and wild beasts, of shifting sands and whirlwinds of dust, of cactus and prairie dogs? To what use could we ever hope to put these great deserts and these endless mountain ranges?”
– U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster, on the American West, 1852
The drought, if somewhat ameliorated by a passably wet winter in Northern California, reminds us that aridity defines the West. Our vulnerability is particularly marked here in Southern California, where the local rivers and springs could barely support a few hundred thousand residents, as opposed to the 20 million or so who live here. Bay Area, we’re talking about you, too, since about two-thirds of your drinking water is imported.
The prospect of continued water shortfalls – perhaps made worse by climate change – poses something of an existential question for this state. In the past, California met the challenge of persistent dryness much as the Romans did in their heyday, by constructing massive waterworks that connected mountain runoff with the thirsty urban masses. Everything that made California the harbinger of the future, from rich farmland to semiconductors and our great cities, was predicated on water transfer.
Now there is a sense that California’s expansion, its ability to create new communities and industries – outside of a few fields, like media and software – faces insurmountable constraints on water and other resources. This perspective has been favored by greens, anti-development NIMBYs and those who seek to corral all California growth into ever-denser, family-unfriendly environments.
This mindset has been predominant over the past decade, as the state has invested little in new water storage or delivery systems, essentially doing nothing since the late 1970s, when the population was 16 million less. Like the Roman Empire in its dotage, we seem to have decided to live off the blessings of the past, a sure way, it seems, to guarantee a diminished future.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com. He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, will be published in April by Agate. He is also author of The New Class Conflict, The City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.
Photo of Lake Palmdale California Water Project by Kfasimpaur (Own work) [Public domain],via Wikimedia Commons