Out Take No. 4
Charlie’s briefing on the Central Valley.
Early in the century, before the federal government got into the business of building dams, most of the water used for irrigation in California was groundwater. The farmers in the Central Valley —which comprises both the Sacramento and the San Joaquin valleys—pumped it out so relentlessly that by the 1930s the state’s biggest industry was threatened with collapse. The growers, by then, had such a stranglehold on the legislature that they convinced it, in the depths of the Depression, to authorize a huge water project—by far the largest in the world—to rescue them from their own greed.”
“Seems like greed is one of the main drivers in water development,” George says. “How do I produce an image of greed?”
“That’s your job, not mine,” Charlie replies. “But take a look at this. Might help. Click on channel 7 on your flat screen.”
George did as directed and the others gathered around as the video began. A reporter is interviewing a state water official. An image of acres and acres of farmland are in the background.
San Joaquin Valley, 1933
“How many acres are under cultivation here in the valley,” the reporter asks.
“About a million and a half, give or take a few hundred,” the official says. “California’s agriculture is doing very well compared to the rest of the nation, especially the Dust Bowl states.”
“How is it irrigated?”
“There are about twenty-thousand five hundred wells.”
“Is that changing the water table?”
“Yes. The water table has dropped nearly three hundred feet in some places, but we think it has stabilized. The legislature is working on getting relief to some of the farmers. It’s a plan to capture the flows not just of the San Joaquin River, which drains the southern half of the Sierra Nevada, but of the Sacramento, which drains the northern half and some of the coast range.”
“Sounds ambitious. How much will that cost?”
“A one hundred seventy million dollar bond issue failed when the bottom dropped out of the market. We’re talking to President Roosevelt about having the Bureau of Reclamation pick up the project. It’ll be the biggest public works project in the world.”
“Can I quote you on all of this?”
“Sure, just make certain you spell my name right.”
“And they did build it,” Charlie says as he video ends. “Then Governor Pat Brown, another Irishman like Mulholland, came along with his California Water Project. Here’s another clip.”
“Governor,” a man says, “word has just come down. We have final approval of the Burns-Porter Act. That bill will be on your desk for signing by tomorrow. What arrangements do you want me to make for the bill-signing ceremony?”
“The usual. Make sure we have all of the co-sponsors in the pictures this time, especially Hugh Burns.”
“What do we want to call this project?”
“Here’s a press release you can hand to the press corps during the signing.”
The man reads the release:
We are pleased to announce that the $1.75 billion dollar Feather River Project, also known as the California Water Project, has been approved by the legislature and signed into law.
This is a major step forward to further the economic interests of everyone in California. The California Aqueduct begins at Oroville Dam, which is the height of the Pan Am Building and the length of the Golden Gate Bridge. Below the dam and the Thermolito Afterbay, the Feather River joins the Sacramento and flows into the Delta.
At the south end of the Delta, the Clifton Court Forebay precedes a battery of ten-thousand-horsepower pumps that suck the Feather River thirty miles across the Delta before it escapes to the sea, then lifts it the first three hundred feet toward its ultimate thirty-four-hundred-foot rise—one single lift is higher than the Eiffel Tower atop the Empire State Building—over the Tehachapi Mountains to the beginning of the California Aqueduct for its 444 mile run to Southern California. It will be a monumental achievement for which Californians can be justly proud.”
Governor Brown signs the Act with a flourish and smiles for the cameras, then he rises from his desk and says, “Now that the Burns-Porter Act has been signed, I’ll take a few questions.”
“Do you think the voters will approve a bond issue of this magnitude?” asks a reporter from the San Francisco Examiner.
“We are certain of it. As you know, one of the bill’s sponsors is Hugh Burns from Northern California.”
“With all due respect, Governor, there is a rumor here in Sacramento that the actual cost estimate is around three billion dollars. Will you comment on that?”
“We have solid documented cost estimates of one-point-seven-five billion. Whoever passed that information to you is totally uninformed. Next question.”
The video ends and Charlie continues, saying that at the time of the bill signing, the estimates were actually in the three billion range, not the one-point-seven-five that Brown stated. Brown was worried the bond issue would fail if the published estimate was any higher. And it was built. Together, the California Water Project and the Central Valley project have captured enough water to supply eight cities the size of New York. But the projects brought into production far more land than they had water to supply, so the growers had to supplement their surface water with tens of thousands of wells. As a result, the groundwater overdraft, instead of being alleviated, got worse. The state had signed binding contracts to deliver 4,230,000 acre-feet of water. However, all of those works could deliver a safe yield of only 2.5 million acre-feet of water.
In the 1850s, when the California gold rush was at full flood, the Great Central Valley traversed by the miners on the way to the mother lode was an American Serengeti—a blond grassland in the summertime, a vast flourishing marsh during the winter and spring. The wildlife, even after a century and a half of Spanish settlement, was unbelievable; millions of wintering ducks, geese and cranes, at least a million antelope and tule elk, thousands of grizzly bears.
“I can see why there’s interest in the area,” George says. “Especially in those giant waterways that brought water south to LA and San Diego, providing agricultural water along the way. Where the concrete waterways are not filled with drifts of blown dirt, it’s still possible to see how massive they were. It’s said they can be seen from outer space.”
Reisner, The Cadillac Desert,[page#].