The Great Thirst

As Norris Hundley, Jr., demonstrates in THE GREAT THIRST, few issues in California’s history have been of such vital concern to its inhabitants as that of water. Native Americans scarcely altered the waterscape, while Hispanic settlers built intricate irrigation systems to meet community needs. Americans entering California after 1848 were determined individualists who believed that the West’s resources were limitless. These entrepreneurs captured as much water as they could and worried little about conservation. Hundley believes that these attitudes still plague water management policy in California.

In the twentieth century, public agencies joined individuals in the competition for water. These “water seekers” vied against one another in a fierce struggle to capture sources of water within and beyond the borders of the state. The most famous cases may be the campaigns of Los Angeles to acquire water from the Owens Valley and the Colorado River, and the battle between San Francisco and preservationists over Hetch Hetchy, but many other struggles occurred. The result is a maze of aqueducts crisscrossing the state, yet California is no closer to water security.

Hundley provides the most comprehensive and readable account of the history of water use in California yet available. He draws an ominous lesson from this history: California’s pattern of unrestrained growth has depended upon harnessing new sources of water, but water seekers now have few if any new sources to exploit. Californians must discover new attitudes and policies regarding water and its use.