Engaging Journeys, Engaged Journalism

When the Well is Dry, We Know the Worth of Water

Benjamin Franklin is credited with that aphorism about the worth of water. Generally taken as a metaphor, Franklin’s wisdom was first published in the 1746 edition of his wildly popular Poor Richard’s Almanak. More than 150 years later farmers in California seemed to know the literal worth of water. WATER WEALTH CONTENTMENT HEALTH: That simple four-word message stretched across the Modesto Arch at 9th and I Streets in downtown Modesto summed up their expectations of the Northern California water that made agricultural abundance possible.

By 1912, when the arch was new, there was good reason for optimism. Attracting new farmers and other residents with the mass-marketed California image of endless sunshine and robust health, relatively new settlements in the great Central Valley were becoming recognizable towns. The first regional irrigation districts were already established, and irrigated fields expanded agricultural possibilities well beyond winter wheat, California’s first major export crop. From a farming perspective the future looked much like the landscape, and also like those enticing folk-art produce labels that helped make California an overnight sensation—expanses of green fields and sunny skies as far as the eye could see. The nation’s biggest breadbasket was being created from rich riverine soils and seemingly endless ribbons of clear, cool water, and it seemed as if that would never change. As writer Joan Didion would later say of the vast valley where she was born and grew up: “All day long, all that moves is the sun, and the big Rainbird sprinklers.”

But other aspects of that vast, placid landscape did move. Circumstances changed, and they’re changing still, in ways that terrify California families and family farmers more than corporate agricultural interests. Californians, particularly those who value the state’s rich soils and agricultural abundance, should be frightened—all the more so if they also treasure the Golden State’s bays and estuaries, rivers, lakes, and well-watered remnants of wild natural beauty. Being forced to choose between productive orchards and fields and the well-being of wild rivers, wild lands and wild creatures is all but impossible for most. Yet the politics of California water seems poised once again to force such a choice.

Joan Didion is well known in recent years for the moving memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, her story about the death of husband John Gregory Dunne and the deep grief that followed. Being a valley girl—meaning someone born and raised in the great Central Valley, not that other valley way down in Southern California—Didion has always understood where California actually is. In her essay ”Notes From a Native Daughter” she tells us:

Many people from the East (or “back East,” as they say in California . . . ) have been to Los Angeles or to San Francisco, have driven through a giant redwood and have seen the Pacific glazed by the afternoon sun off Big Sur, and they naturally tend to believe that they have in fact been to California. They have not been, and they probably never will be, because it is a longer and in many ways a more difficult trip than they might want to undertake, one of those trips on which the destination flickers chimerically on the horizon, ever receding, ever diminishing. . . . California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.

Getting things to work out was challenging. Some might say, nothing short of magic.

Despite the high-flying hopes spelled out on the brand new Modesto Arch, plenty of hard scrabbling was straight ahead. In California the 1930s and the Great Depression meant overflowing migrant labor camps up and down its Central Valley. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath would tell that story to the world. Dust Bowl refugees came to pick cotton, though many of them stayed to play their parts in California’s “completion,” as historian Kevin Starr describes the transformation that came from the desperate need to get America working again.

Though Depression-era public works projects created thousands and thousands of jobs in California, these were not make-work programs. As Starr puts it:

Most of them brought to fulfillment decades, even half centuries, of planning. From the nineteenth century, Americans in California had realized that if California were to reach its full potential as a regional civilization, it would have to be physically adjusted. It would have to be rendered complete. Completing itself as a physical place, then, became the central public challenge California presented to itself in the 1930s, through public works programs.


This “completion” of California meant extensive engineering and new water delivery systems. And the predictably unpredictable and wild Sacramento River was at the center of state public policy debate for decades. What should be done? And who should do it—the federal or state government?

Because the Sacramento was a navigable river, and therefore a national resource under federal jurisdiction, the United States stepped up—in 1873, not long after the Civil War. Commissioned by President Ulysses S. Grant, Colonel Barton Alexander of the Army Corps of Engineers submitted a bold, immensely detailed plan for building a system of dams and canals for irrigation and flood control throughout California’s great Central Valley, a design intended to ”rescue” one-third of California’s land area—wetlands and tule marshes—for both agriculture and human habitation. Then in 1919 Lt. Robert B. Marshall of the U.S. Geological Survey proposed transporting water from the Sacramento River system to the San Joaquin Valley and moving it over the Tehachapi Mountains into Southern California.

The rest, as they say, is history, one comprised of two separate yet interconnected world-renowned feats of engineering—the federally funded Central Valley Project (CVP) approved in 1935, managed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and the California State Water Project (SWP), endorsed by the California Legislature in 1945 and managed by the state’s Department of Water Resources.

The CVP manages 22 dams and reservoirs—including Shasta, Trinity, Lewiston, and Folsom Lakes, and both Whiskeytown and San Luis Reservoirs—as well as 11 power plants, 500 miles of major canals, and conduits, tunnels, and related facilities. The SWP features 20 major reservoirs and lakes, including Lake Oroville. Adding lasting confusion to the complexity, both the CVP and the SWP move water via the Sacramento River and through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, requiring a high level of cooperation and coordination. And that’s not even considering all the counties, cities, small towns, irrigation districts, and private landowners with rights and responsibilities in this grand scheme.

We know, now, that there is a price to be paid—often a very high price—for damming wild rivers, for diverting water away from its natural course. Yet the California of today wouldn’t exist without the “completion” of the state’s landscape.

Some sense of what it meant, to California and the country, to complete these immense water-moving monuments can be understood from the comments made in 1964 by President John F. Kennedy at Whiskeytown Reservoir, where he spoke upon that project’s completion:

Whiskeytown Reservoir is not the largest structure on the Trinity River, but its completion is significant because this is the last of the Trinity Project dams. With the Trinity Division completed, and the upper reaches of the Sacramento now harnessed, Shasta County and its neighbors are assured of water and power—they can enjoy new chances for recreational use and new access to open space—and of great importance, the flow of two watersheds can now be regulated for the benefit of the farms and cities of the lower valley.

For too long this water ran unused to the sea. For too long surface water in one area was wasted while there was a deficit nearby. Now, by diverting these waters to the eastern slopes, we can irrigate crops on the fertile plains of the Sacramento Valley, and supply water also for municipal and industrial use for the cities of the south.

And while running their course these waters will generate millions of kilowatts of energy and will help expand the economy of the fastest growing state in the nation. Our national assets belong to all of us. Children who were born in the East will grow up in the West, and the West will grow up in the East. And we will find by concentrating our energy on our natural resources, on conserving them—but not really conserving and saving them, but by developing and improving them—the United States will be richer and stronger. We can fulfill our responsibilities to ourselves and to those who depend upon us.

Modern sensibilities, not to mention salmon, might take issue with notions of natural waters running “unused” to the sea, as well as the idea that developing natural resources means “improving” them. Yet the economic and social benefits of moving water to less blessed urban areas are real.

Sandhill Cranes

What no officials would question, then, and few are questioning now, is the assumption that engineering is still the solution for ever-increasing demand.

Seemingly cemented into California’s unnatural wonderland of water is much magical thinking—as if building the right delivery system assures that there will be enough water for any number of people and all possible uses. As if this magician’s trick can continue forever, manifesting more and more water with newer and better technological sleights of hand.

But what if there isn’t more water? What if there’s less? Clearly it’s a problem when demand exceeds supply, but what if allotments already promised to water users far exceed what’s typically available?

This is where we are, today, and where the conversation must begin.

Next time Up the Road explores The Worth of Water we’ll consider the question: What does price have to do with it?

Kim Weir is editor of Up the Road, and a lifelong Butte County resident with a particular interest in California’s sustainability. She has been a member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) since 1991, and is author of the first and original Northern California Handbook (Moon Publications).

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