Each year, my family and I visit my father-in-law at his house in the desert, just over the mountains from Los Angeles. From there, we can't see the great beast they call L.A., but we can feel it. The San Gabriel Mountains loom black against the city's nighttime glow. At all hours, a steady stream of cars flows by on the Pearblossom Highway. Most aren't trying to get from one town to another, but rather to travel from one side of L.A. to the other side of L.A. - a 100-mile trip.
It's a little scary. But it's also awe-inspiring, because the place works. This teeming machine of humanity, and the gigantic infrastructure that it relies upon, operates day after day, decade after decade, without respite. Each morning, the millions who live here make their coffee, drive to work, switch on their computers. An occasional power outage disrupts things, and there are traffic snarls from time to time, but all in all, the place just keeps humming along.
Yet there are signs of fragility everywhere. This fall, a fiery crash in a freeway tunnel halted traffic and clogged the city's arteries for days afterward. A few downed power lines could cripple the power grid. And, as we learned in October, a spark hitting tinder-dry chaparral can quickly turn well-ordered neighborhoods into an inferno.
Perhaps most delicate and mysterious of all is the system that supplies water to all of these people. It's always been a challenge to keep L.A. wet, but now, with drought, a growing population and a restriction on water withdrawals from the Sacramento Delta, it's become even harder. But it gets done, and HCN Contributing Editor Matt Jenkins, in this issue's cover story, tells us how. He delves into the workings of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which keeps the fluid flowing to some 18 million people. He tells us how this monstrous agency, once known for its ruthlessness, has begun to take a gentler approach to keeping its customers hydrated. A big part of the new approach includes going to farmers and buying or renting water meant for crops.
The intricate maneuvering that Jenkins details may not be pretty, but it's become necessary in these dry times. And, as cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas and Denver come more and more to resemble L.A., these sorts of deals are likely to be replicated across the West.
Here in the town of Paonia, in western Colorado, it all seems a bit abstract. We can look up towards the mountains and see, more or less, the place where our water bubbles out of the ground and flows down a pipe into town, no deal-making necessary. Nevertheless, it would behoove even rural Westerners to pay attention to what's going on in L.A. After all, I suspect someone already has his eye on the water that fills this valley's ditches each summer. And I suspect that someday, we won't need to go to L.A. or Phoenix or Denver, because they'll come to us.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.