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The Town Los Angeles Drank

A $25 billion plan, a small town, and a half century of wrangling over the most important resource in the biggest state.

| Wed Feb. 26, 2014 12:00 PM EST

This story originally appeared in the The Atlantic and is republished here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Hood, California, is a farming town of 200 souls, crammed up against a levee that protects it from the Sacramento River. The eastern approach from I-5 and the Sacramento suburb of Elk Grove is bucolic. Cows graze. An abandoned railroad track sits atop a narrow embankment. Cross it, and the town comes into view: a fire station, five streets, a tiny park. The last three utility poles on Hood-Franklin Road before it dead-ends into town bear American flags.

Hood CA

I've come here because this little patch of land is the key location in Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed $25 billion plan to fix California's troubled water transport system. Hood sits at the northern tip of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a network of manmade islands and channels constructed on the ruins of the largest estuary from Patagonia to Alaska. Since the 1950s, the Delta has served as the great hydraulic tie between Northern and Southern California: a network of rivers, tributaries, and canals deliver runoff from the Sierra Mountain Range's snowpack to massive pumps at the southern end of the Delta. From there, the water travels through aqueducts to the great farms of the San Joaquin Valley and to the massive coastal cities. The Delta, then, is not only a 700,000-acre place where people live and work, but some of the most important plumbing in the world. Without this crucial nexus point, the current level of agricultural production in the southern San Joaquin Valley could not be sustained, and many cities, including the three largest on the West Coast—Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Jose—would have to come up with radical new water-supply solutions.

Too much is being asked of the Delta. The levees that define the region's water channels are aging, and geologists and climate scientists worry that earthquakes or rising sea levels could rupture them. More immediately, the Delta ecosystem is collapsing. Native fish species are on the brink of extinction in part because of this massive water-transfer apparatus. The unnatural flows disrupt their natural habitat, and when they reach the pumps—which they often do, despite the state's efforts—they die. The Delta smelt population, for instance, has gone from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands in the last few decades.

Brown's father, Pat, oversaw the completion of this productive, destructive system, and Jerry Brown himself tried to fix it during his first round as governor 30 years ago. A statewide vote thwarted him then, but he's ready to try again. His proposal, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, would bore two tunnels longer than the English-French Chunnel underneath the Delta, while simultaneously restoring thousands of acres of wetland.

Locals fear that the Delta could end up wiped out like Owens Valley, which Los Angeles drained like a cold beer on a hot day.

The water intakes for the tunnels would flank Hood: two to the north, one to the south. Water that would have flowed down through the Delta, then sent south, will be diverted here instead. If the water goes underground at Hood, passing through new, high-tech fish screens, it will pick up fewer endangered creatures on the way to the south Delta pumps. State officials hope that means federal environmental agencies will stop interfering in their water delivery operations.

It is an audacious plan, one that seems to come from another era, where governments were more ambitious in their transformation of the natural world. Brown explicitly invoked this grand spirit in unveiling an early version of the plan in mid-2012.

"There's a lot of history here. Taking this history, I can say that the proposal that we're unveiling today is a big idea for a big state for an ambitious people that since the Gold Rush has been setting the trends and tone for the entire United States," Brown said. "California has prospered because we've taken risks, we've pioneered, and we've been able to collaborate. Yes, there is going to be some opposition. Political, citizen, activist, whatever, it goes with the territory."

Hood is one base for that opposition. Everywhere you look in this part of the state, you see signs that read, "Stop the Tunnels! Save the Delta!" The tunnels would take at least 10 years to build, and the $15 billion price tag, which doesn't include $10 billion for habitat restoration, could go up, based on the experience of other underground projects like Boston's Big Dig. Huge construction vehicles would patrol the roads for a decade. There would be regular detours along River Road, a main thoroughfare. And at the end of all that inconvenience, there would be three massive industrial facilities flanking the river, jutting into adjacent fields.

The locals don't like that, but their real worry is that the tunnels will be used to drain the Delta's fresh water—in effect, wiping out the farmers here in favor of bigger southern producers. At the moment, the Sierra water that flows through the region overground acts as a hydraulic barrier to keep salty San Francisco Bay water from creeping eastward. The tunnels will change that. The Delta, they fear, could end up wiped out like Owens Valley, once home to a 100 square mile lake, which Los Angeles drained like a cold beer on a hot day. Chinatown was made about that battle, and Delta residents don't want to be immortalized in a sequel. Only this place wouldn't become a dustbowl like Owens Valley so much as a saltwater world. As soon as the tunnels went into operation, much of the fresh Sierra runoff would leave the Delta waterways, and higher salinity Bay water would creep in. Then, perhaps, over time, once southern interests stopped relying on the Delta's above-ground channels for water transport, the state might not be so eager to pay the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to keep the local levees standing. Sea levels are rising, and already, a few tracts of land have been permanently submerged.

Outside the Hood Market, the only open business in town, a man in a brown corduroy jacket and pants leans against one of the skinny white posts holding up the corrugated tin roof. I ask him if he knows Mario Moreno, the man I'd arranged to meet in town through the Hood community Facebook page.

"Is his truck here?" he asked, looking around at the four cars parked in the lot. "He'll probably be here in that big SMUD truck."

The town is boxed in by several large buildings, remnants of a time when the area shipped its produce by boat and rail. The man gazes blankly at them, finishing his cigarette and lighting another.

A Toyota Tacoma swings around the corner: In the driver's seat, I recognize Moreno from his Facebook profile. Cropped black hair with some salt and pepper around the sides. A groomed mustache. Aftershave wafts out of the cab.

"Chetttyyy," he says to the man in the corduroy.

"Mario!" comes the reply.

The three of us stand in the parking lot, and I bring up the tunnel project. The topic turns to Jerry Brown.

"Fuck him, man," Nadar Chetty says.

"We're like ground zero for this whole thing," Moreno says. "Aside from the politics and the technologies and the engineering, which would be a big massive project and I don't know—"

Chetty cuts in, "This town, a good 65 percent of the population is third, fourth, fifth generation."

Moreno, who works for the local utility, is related to dozens of people in town. Most of them originally came up from the southwestern Mexican state of Michoacán as part of the WWII-era bracero program, and then perched for a while in Colorado before heading west. Moreno's mother arrived in Hood in 1945. She lives in a mobile home at the end of Fifth Street, which dead-ends into a farm. Across a vibrant green field sits the impressively restored Rancho Rosebud about a mile to the north, and right next to the likely location for one of the intakes. It was once the home of the most powerful man ever to live in Hood, William Johnston, a Pennsylvanian who became a state senator and two-time California delegate to the National Grange.

Hood concept drawing
A concept drawing of a tunnel intake near Hood, as envisioned by the Bureau of Reclamation. The fish screens are located in the structure along the canal. If the plan goes through, there will be three similar intakes along the Sacramento River near Hood.

Picking up the theme, Moreno says, "Absolutely, lot of history here, lot of farming families."

"History that would be destroyed by this," Chetty declares. Areas around Hood will become the staging grounds for the biggest alteration of the ecological and economic landscape in the Delta since the 1960s, when the State Water Project began, or even the 1860s, when people like Johnston carved farmable Delta land out of the swamp.

"So those are the things I look at, how it's gonna affect the people who are here," says Moreno. "Take it away from all the politics. I do know that this is a state that needs water and manages water resources, but have we done everything that we can? It's just like in energy efficiency, what I do. I make sure that we do everything that we can before we start bringing on new supply."

Go to a faucet. Turn it on. This—water flowing out, clean, drinkable, always-on—this is the lifeblood of society.

A cup of water is eight ounces. There are 16 of those in a gallon. In the water world, the main unit of measurement is not the gallon, but the cubic foot of water. One cubic foot is 7.48 gallons, or 62.4 pounds of water. Imagine an office water cooler, but 1.5 times bigger.

If a little bit of water is moving, it's quantified in gallons per minute. A bathroom sink might deliver 1.5 gallons per minute. If a lot of water is moving, then the measurement of choice is cfs, cubic feet per second. A fire hose delivers about 4.5 cubic feet per second.

If water is sitting in a reservoir or being bought or sold, then people talk about acre-feet of water. One acre-foot of water equals 43,560 cubic feet, or 325,851 gallons. An unofficial rule of California water politics holds that if you want to make an amount of water sound large, use gallons. If you'd like to make it sound small, set your units to acre-feet or even million acre-feet.

San Luis Reservoir
The San Luis Reservoir in the center of California is a key link between the State Water Project and the federally funded Central Valley Project. Alexis Madrigal

Compare: 1) Los Angeles uses about 600,000 acre-feet of water per year. 2) Los Angeles uses 195,510,600,000 gallons of water per year.

For the rest of this article, I'll go with acre-feet because it reflects the scale of these projects better. They are not working at your puny human level.

So, to set the scene: All of the golf courses, parks, and other "large landscapes" in the state use 700,000 acre-feet. That's a bit more than Los Angeles uses.

But then take a look at Kern County, at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley. Last year, it consumed 2.7 million acre-feet of water. The vast majority of it went to agriculture. Kern County's water usage could support an urban population of 15.9 million people at LA's per capita consumption rate.

Not to let the thirsty Southern Californian cities off the hook, but agriculture soaks up the vast majority of water in the state. Depending on the year, up to 80 percent of the water diverted by people goes to farms and ranches. If you include water used for environmental purposes, like having flowing streams and places for aquatic animals to live, then agriculture's share drops to 40 percent, with the environment getting roughly the same amount, and all urban uses gulping down the last 20 percent.

southland cities
The cities of the southland depend, at least for now, on water imported from other places to the north and east. Alexis Madrigal

This water doesn't usually come from streams adjacent to family farms. Much of it is pumped from underground aquifers. And the rest is delivered by two vast interconnected hydraulic machines that push melted snow from dams in the Sierras, through the Delta, to massive pumps that fill the aqueducts traversing the state. One machine is called the Central Valley Project, and it's managed by the federal government under the Bureau of Reclamation, the same agency that built the Hoover Dam. Historically, it's sent 7 million acre-feet of water south of the Delta.

The other machine is California's own concoction. That's the State Water Project, and it was cemented into place by Gov. Pat Brown. It's never delivered less than 1.1 million acre-feet of water to the south, and it's often delivered millions of acre-feet.

The Central Valley Project sends about 70 percent of its water to farms and 30 percent to cities. The State Water Project's proportions are inverted: It delivers water to the Southern California cities and a few, large farming districts. The two projects work in concert and share some facilities, including the vast San Luis Reservoir in central California, not to mention the byways of the Delta. Both machines are controlled at a Joint Operations Center in Sacramento, where an interactive map on the wall shows the condition of the waterworks as best as it can be known.

Taken together, this is the infrastructure that does the dirty work of California's long-held water policy: Take water from the north and move it to the south.

It's a kind of landscape arbitrage. In a sunny place, water tends to be the main constraint to growth. Add water and anything—people, alfalfa, nine-hole golf courses, swimming pools—can proliferate endlessly. According to the logic of half a century ago, when the word ecosystem was just coming into the common parlance, water in a wet place does humans no good. Water in a dry place? Well, that's Los Angeles. That's the fields of the San Joaquin Valley. That's the Inland Empire.

A Department of Water Resources Annual Report, released in 1968 as the State Water Project neared completion, laid it out bluntly:

"California is in the midst of constructing an unprecedented water project for one essential reason—the State had no alternative. Nature has not provided the right amount of water in the right places at the right times. Eighty percent of the people in California live in metropolitan areas from Sacramento to the Mexican border; however, 70 percent of the State's water supply originates north of the latitude of San Francisco Bay."

And the construction was unprecedented. The State Water Project is the biggest of its kind in the country. The Banks Pumping Plant at the south end of the Delta can send 10,300 cubic feet of water 200 feet into the air and then down into the California Aqueduct. In a given year, the State Water Project can deliver a maximum of 4.1 million acre-feet of water, though it averages more like 3 million. The Central Valley Project delivers more than twice that volume down south through the Delta-Mendota Canal.

Moving so much H20 from north to south requires tremendous amounts of energy: The two projects alone consume nearly 5 percent of all the state's electricity. The San Joaquin River, which naturally flows north and west, flows backward during irrigation season. Water released from the Oroville Dam in the Sierra mountains takes 10 days to travel the whole State Water Project, branching across to the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, then down the Central Valley and over the Tehachapi Mountains, and then into a pipe along the edge of Los Angeles to the Inland Empire, where eventually, after everyone's taken the water they've paid for, what's left fills a small lake on the edge of what was once known as the Great American Desert.

For a long time, the system has worked. But the infrastructure is getting old, the political arrangements that underpinned it are breaking apart, and climate change is threatening droughts and sea level rise—all of which terrifies powerful farmers and big-city water managers south of the Delta.

The state's water system and the farms and cities it feeds are perceived to be so important to the functioning of the country that when a drought hits California, the White House pays attention. This month, President Obama visited the San Joaquin Valley. He explicitly connected the drought to climate change and the national interest. "California is our biggest economy. California is our biggest agricultural producer," he said. "Whatever happens here happens to everybody."

Lake Perris
By the time water reaches Lake Perris—the southern end of the State Water Project, 90 miles east of Lost Angeles—it has traveled 700 miles from the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Alexis Madrigal

In the desert of Riverside County, there is a slatted metal grate sunk into a hill sloping towards the man-made Lake Perris. A small door would allow a skinny maintenance man to shimmy down via a crude ladder bolted into the concrete tube.

There's no plaque to indicate what this place is. There are prickly plants. A few morning walkers. A couple of fishermen down on the imported sandy beach. Empty fairgrounds stand just on the other side of the dam.

It is just one more patch of California scrub desert down the road from a Jiffy Lube and a logistics center.

The only sign is the sound, a roar rising up and out from the grate. It sounds like a mountain stream transported into the middle of the desert and that is what it is. I've found the very end of the State Water Project's aqueduct. The water rushing under my feet probably fell as snow up in the Sierra, 500 miles from here, then it melted, rushing down the Feather River to the 3.5 million acre-foot Oroville Reservoir, or into the Bear and Yuba, two other tributaries of the Sacramento River. The Sacramento, then, flows into the Delta—the connection between the mountains, the Pacific Ocean, and the watershed of the Central Valley.

As the water rushes to meet up with the San Joaquin River and its tributaries along its natural southeasterly path towards the San Francisco Bay, vast pumps divert the flow into a reservoir at the bottom of the Delta. There, they suck it in and shoot it 200 feet up into the California aqueduct, a deceptively narrow canal that runs 30 feet deep. Something like 75,000 gallons rush onward each second. This cold, blue ribbon runs down the western edge of the entire Central Valley, getting a boost from pumps when it falls too close to sea level as it winds among almond orchards, past prisons, around ratty vineyards, behind Jack in the Boxes, and through communities built to serve the needs of I-5 travelers, people who want to leave as quickly as possible.

Lake Perris map

This is the state's own aqueduct. Like the federally run Central Valley Project's Delta-Mendota Canal, it's a product of the great age of Reclamation, a time when any river water reaching the ocean was considered a waste of potential.

The two water projects meet up near the San Luis Reservoir, a joint state-federal facility a couple of miles east of I-5 and a smidge north of the latitude of Santa Cruz. Set amidst the fractal buckling of the hills, the thick wall of the dam that holds in the weight of the water is a spectacle of flatness. It is so flat and so large as to simulate the horizon, though it's higher and smoother, straight as a pencil line drawn sharp and fast against a ruler.

In this drought year, which follows two other drought years, every single blade of grass that is not managed by humans is brown. Where the blue water splashes onto the soil, it erupts into oversaturated greens almost libidinous in their vibrancy. Where the water hasn't touched for long enough, there is sand, and not even the husk or memory of plants. The highway does not pass over a single stream with running water for 250 miles. There are tumbleweeds caught in the rows of almond trees in Kern County.

At the bottom of the valley, the water runs into the Tehachapi Mountains. There, a few miles off the I-5—past a natural gas outfit, a vineyard, and a sand and gravel purveyor—a building has been pounded into the mountainside, as if by Tolkien's dwarves. These are the great Edmonston Pumps, which send 110 million gallons an hour up across the pass. They do their work silently, the wind whipping around them, cows grazing in the distance, the lights of the gas company's facilities blinking in the dusk. These pumps are one of the many superlatives of the system: Nowhere in the world is water pumped higher than right here from the dwarf building inside the mountain.

In this drought year, which follows two other drought years, every single blade of grass that is not managed by humans is brown.

Once on the other side, the water is fed into the vast distribution networks that the Metropolitan Water District uses to dispense water to local utilities across the southland. This service does not come cheap. Over the past 10 years, north-to-south water have doubled in price to $800 per acre-foot, or about 1/40th of a cent per gallon. This is considered very expensive in the world of Big Water.

After the LA basin, the water rolls on through a pipeline, pushing into the Inland Empire—a land of relentless sun that is, with the exception of Palm Springs, the end of civilization before the great western desert takes over with continental force and distance.

And here, we find another great flatness. A dam, surrounded by rocky outcroppings and nearby mountains, hulks awkwardly behind the Riverside Fairgrounds. This is the Lake Perris reservoir, the southernmost piece of the State Water Project, the end of the line. Early on a February morning, with the sun rising over its beaches, fishermen's trucks pulled up to the water, poles leaning on their tailgates, pheasants running across the roads, and leafy trees swaying in a slight breeze, it could easily be called beautiful. For decades, various levels of government have touted the "recreation" benefits that reservoirs deliver. In the desert, just seeing water and the possibility of trees is a relief.

Lake Perris
Water pours silently and invisibly into the Lake Perris reservoir. Alexis Madrigal

It's hard to spot the place where the Sierra water enters this desert holding tank. After driving back and forth along the lake's western edge, I ran into a state park official exiting a port-a-potty. He chewed on his soul patch for a moment. No, he didn't know, brah. But he led me back to the main office—a pre-fab building with a small porch and a large grill—and there, a man told me to drive back up the road and look for a small shed on the side of the road.

A couple of minutes up the road, I saw the humble shed. The bricks that covered its exterior blended seamlessly into the surroundings. I pulled off the road into a convenient parking spot labeled 10-minute parking, as if someone had expected this spot to receive a crush of visitors.

And that's when I saw the grate and I heard the water of the Sierra. In the blackness, an ellipse the precise azure of the sky shimmered.

Advertise on

The desert surrounded me. The sun rose higher.

When I asked one Riverside local if she'd ever gone to the lake, she wrinkled her nose and rolled her eyes. "Not really, it's man-made," she said.

Richard White, a Stanford historian of the American West, pointed out to me a funny paradox that crops up all over this state: "The least natural places in California become the only refuge of the natural world."

When Gov. Pat Brown came into office in 1959, both Northern and Southern Californians needed something from the existing water system. The north wanted a dam to tame the Feather River, which had done severe damage in the winter of '55-'56. The south needed the water that the dam would impound. To push the original State Water Project through, Brown needed to unite the flood control interests of the north with the water supply interests of the south—and thread the needle right through the Delta just south of the state house in Sacramento. His biographer Ethan Ratrick describes his chutzpah. "You've got to remember that I was absolutely determined that I was going to pass this California Water Project," Brown declared years later. "I wanted this to be a monument to me." And it has been for 50 years.

But there's a basic tension inherent in California's water story. Ever since the Gold Rush days, people in the state have claimed a right to the full flow of water flowing past their own land—so called "riparian rights." But what if the guy upstream wanted to use the water for, say, mining? He might impede the flow. This did, in fact, happen. And the miners coined the tagline "First-in-time, first-in-right." If you could get to it, you could use it.

minor with hydraulic cannon
A miner blasts through rubble with a hydraulic cannon in an 1883 illustration from The Century magazine Library of Congress

Eventually, the State Supreme Court ruled in 1886 that people who owned land along the rivers had first dibs on the flow of the water. This victory for riparian rights had consequences that have lasted for decades. "Millions of acres of arable land throughout the Central Valley could not qualify for riparian rights because they were not adjacent to reliable sources of surface water, and their water rights were now effectively subordinate to those of riparians," wrote the Public Policy Institute, a California think tank, in a 2011 book on water management. "This meant that downstream riparians—including those farming the lower reaches of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers and in the Delta itself—could claim the full, unencumbered flow of the rivers despite the burdens such claims would place on upstream appropriators. Moreover, riparian rights would become an obstacle to developing water supplies for California's growing cities, which sought to acquire supplemental water sources."

“I wanted this to be a monument to me” declared Gov. Pat Brown of the State Water Project.

A series of laws has tried to patch up the leaky system since then, the most important of which was the Water Commission Act of 1913, which serves as a milestone even today. Everyone who has wanted to appropriate water since 1914 has needed a permit. Those who claimed their rights before that time are considered "senior," and they don't need anybody's stinking permit. Those are some valuable rights. A 1928 Constitutional amendment knocked the riparians down a peg, saying they couldn't claim the whole flow of a river, but rather only a "reasonable and beneficial" amount of water. Unfortunately, reasonable and beneficial are contestable terms. Basic question remain unresolved: Does one's historical standing or land location mean anything? Or should all water flow to the highest-value uses?

This Chitty Chitty Bang Bang of a system kept on clanking along through the creation of Central Valley Project and the State Water Project and all the way up through the environmental legislation of the 1960s, when people began to ask, "Don't the fish need water, too?" just as the cities and the San Joaquin Valley were exploding.

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