Sunday, October 2, 2011

Water in a Desert

The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called The Town I Live In.

While reading a 40-page interview with Howard Crooke, who spent his career working for the Metropolitan Water District in Orange County, I am struck by two escapable facts: water issues are complicated and full of conflict, especially in a desert like Orange County.

While in college, I took a California Government and Politics class, where we learned about water issues in Los Angeles. How, you might ask, does a city as large as Los Angeles, situated in a desert, have enough water for everyone? The answer is, of course, they don’t. Getting adequate water to LA involved the building of dams and pipelines from water-rich areas like the Colorado River, and the Owens Valley. The tragedy of Owens Valley is that LA took so much of their water that the valley dried up and the farmers lost their farms.

In Orange County, the history of water use is full of complex deals struck with farmers, cities, organizations, developers, the Metropolitan Water District, lawyers and judges.

Here is one example. In 1961, the MWD filed a lawsuit against Riverside, San Bernadino, and the eastern part of Los Angeles county, arguing that they were hoarding water from the Santa Ana River. The MWD, headed up by Crooke, employed an army of lawyers and engineers to argue their case. “We used almost a whole floor of rooms at the California Hotel (present day Villa Del Sol) for the attorneys and engineers.” The trial lasted 114 days.

In the end, the judge ruled that Riverside and San Bernadino counties had to limit their water use. If they wanted more, they could purchase someone else’s water rights. The defendants appealed their case all the way to the California Supreme Court, who left the decision as it was first ruled.

Whenever you turn on your water faucet or take a shower, know that your water doesn’t just magically appear out of nowhere. It is the product of years of debate and compromise, a process that is ongoing today.


Water not only gives life. It can also destroy. In 1938, there was a major flood in Southern California that killed a number of people and did extensive property damage. Crook recalls, "Sometime during the night of the flood, I heard quite a noise. Later, I found out that the noise was created by some fifty thousand barrel oil tanks that had broken loose out in Atwood and were bobbing down Orangethorpe Avenue in the water. Of course, the oil was probably gone out of them, as they had ruptured. There was lot of oil in the orchards and there was deep sand and silt deposits in some of them. They had to dig the trees out."

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