I think it was Mark Twain who said, “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over.” But it was Wallace Stegner who said that the history of the American West was driven by aridity. I know it was Stegner, in fact, because I heard him say it a long time ago in Logan, Utah, at a writer’s conference in the Cache Valley.
He said the West’s history was jammed with regional battles over water, an element more precious than the precious metals that initially attracted Anglos to dry and inhospitable places. Now, as the Golden State turns ever more crispy after 14 years of an increasingly severe drought, the war for water is growing even more fierce.
I spent a big chunk of my life in the mountains, most of it in a town called Quincy, an hour and a half drive from Reno, at an elevation of 3,400 feet. To get to where I once lived from what some people sneeringly called the “flatlands,” most people drove up the Feather River Canyon, one of the most beautiful drives I know of in the American West.
On those drives home to Quincy, I always felt as though I was making my escape from the world. But that was an illusion, of course. The world followed me, and the water flowing by me as I made my way up the canyon was, in large part, destined for Los Angeles, some 300 miles to the south. L.A. soaks up water like a sponge, not only draining off the Feather River and much of its annual snowmelt, but also sucking the water table out of the Owens Valley. Over the past century, a big salt flat has appeared where Owens Lake used to be, creating dust storms there that now have become a health issue for local people.
There were few people in Quincy, that rural outpost where I once lived, a lot fewer than those farther to the south in the ever-growing L.A. basin. And wherever the water is and not that many people are, it’s a virtual certainty that the water will be dammed, diverted or otherwise purloined, because that is what the history of the American West has largely been about for well over a hundred years. Stegner stated that fact most elegantly, and I lived to see it played out in local and regional politics in the years that followed hearing him say it.
There were droughts in Quincy, times when water rationing was imposed on the very place where the water originated, even as the fountains kept flowing and the golf courses of Los Angeles stayed green with water from the Feather River, from the Colorado River, and from the place in Owens Valley where a lake had once been.
In the mid-’70s, my wife and I built a house on the outskirts of town, in the middle of a 10-acre parcel in a dense forest. The ridge rose higher above our land, another couple of thousand feet, and there was no one at all between where we’d had our well dug and where our water came from, high up on that neighboring ridge. We were lucky, hitting water only two feet deeper than the absolute minimum depth required by law.
Since the cost of a well is figured by how many feet down the well must be drilled, we got off cheap. And the water was gorgeous. The well driller let it flow for hours after he hit the channel, telling me he had to clear the line, test the rate of flow, and do other well-driller business requiring that a gusher of very cold and crystal clear water burbled up and ran off while I watched. “God,” I said at the time, “I hate to see all that water wasted.”
“It’s not wasted,” the well driller replied, “it’s just being moved. ” I was reassured by that comment, and I never forgot it, because it seemed to broaden my understanding of things.
I wish my understanding of waste and well water could be applied to the Feather River water that flows to L.A. each year, down the peripheral canal to water the lawns and fill the pools in Beverly Hills. I can’t help but think that much of that water, there and in the Cascades, the Rockies, the Sierras and the Siskiyous, isn’t merely being moved; it is being wasted. And the places where it’s taken continue to be profoundly damaged by both the diversion, and by the waste.
Jaime O’Neill is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He lives in Northern California.