Monday, June 20, 2005

is california for you?

Five quakes in or just off the coast of California in the past week have some local residents buying extra earthquake supplies in at least one small town. Seismologists point out that this doesn't necessarily mean the big one is imminent, and that's true. But there is no getting around the fact that some day there will be a very big earthquake in a heavily populated part of California, and it won't be fun.

But really the question for any Californians out there should be, will the earthquakes get us before we dry up? Native Californian Marc Reisner examines this question in two excellent books that anybody considering moving to California should read before moving to the coast.

The first was Cadillac Desert, a history of water development in the American West. Despite the dry-sounding subject matter, it is a fascinating book that details the water wars in the West over the past 150 years, including the legendary theft of the Owens River by Los Angeles and the subjugation of the Colorado River to serve the people and especially industries of California, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Wyoming -- destroying ecosystems and robbing Mexico along the way.

Cadillac Desert
covers the Army Corps of Engineer's role throughout the US west of the Mississippi, but I found the California chapters most compelling. And relevant, given that in recent years the amount of water coming down the Colorado has not been enough for the seven states' needs, partly because of increased demand, and partly due to decreased snowpacks in Wyoming and Colorado; can you say "climate change?". Also, as Reisner points out, the Colorado River Pact was drawn up at a time of what we now know to be abnormally HIGH levels of rain/snowfall, so the supply was in retrospect bound to become tight -- even without the absurd pricing policy for this water. It drives me crazy that Western agribusiness gets water subsidized by taxpayers from adequately-watered parts of the country to grow cheap produce -- and those same agrobusinesses clamor for less government and lower taxes. (Just like the rancher who wants less government interference while he grazes his cattle at dirt-cheap prices on federal lands -- another myth of the rugged, individualistic Westerner, but I digress.)

But Reisner points to a greater concern -- that California's farmland will grow ever more saline from intensive irrigation until it grows useless. All that desert in Iraq we've been seeing on TV lately? Much of that is part of what was known as the Fertile Crescent, back in Biblical times. It is hard to believe now, but ancient peoples irrigated that land extensively, and it was fabulously productive for thousands of years, but eventually salination (NOT the Mongol hordes as legend has it) brought an end to irrigation farming in that region. We'll see if California's alfalfa and strawberry growers can avoid that fate.

But Reisner wasn't just concerned about California's water supply; he feared the effect a major earthquake would have on the Golden State. A Dangerous Place describes how Californians continue to build up places that are extremely vulnerable to earthquakes, whistling in the dark and hoping no major seismic event hits their particular hillside. Mudslides and wildfires have nothing on a big quake for destructive power, Angelenos and San Franciscans. Hitting some of the same themes as in Cadillac Desert, Reisner describes the growth of Los Angeles and San Francisco, points out their vulnerabilities, and at the end describes a nightmare scenario for a major quake in the Bay area, complete with a break in the levees that could flood the Central Valley with seawater-- with obvious consequences for California's water supply and agricultural future.

Both Cadillac Desert and A Dangerous Place are well-researched, well-written, and thought-provoking books. Californians who fear the state will be overcrowded should send copies of both books to anybody considering moving to the state -- but shouldn't read the books themselves if they plan to stay and sleep soundly at night. I certainly don't plan to move there ever!

Unfortunately, Reisner won't be following up with other cautionary tales about America's biggest state; he died of cancer in 2000, only 51 years old. His books have really stuck with me in a way that not many do; I read Cadillac Desert 10 years ago and it is still vivid in my memory.

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