I leave Topanga Canyon at dawn. When I pull over and step from the car, the call of birds litters the dimly lit scrub forest. Lights from the densely populated LA Basin twinkle in the distance. On the cusp of day and night; metropolis and canyon, nature is alive.
I head north on I-5, climbing up and through the Transverse Range. The landscape in these mountains separating the Los Angeles River basin from the great central valley is bone-dry. Morning light carves spectacular shadows. Road signs tell me I am passing through Angeles National Forest, yet trees are scarce.
Later, I aim my camera back toward the mountains I’ve crossed. The whistling wind is damp and cold, heady with the scent of manure. Much like the dry Columbia Basin of central-eastern Washington, California’s central valley grows food successfully only because of artificial rivers, canals that carry water to fields and feedlots.
Signs of industrial agriculture are everywhere, including its more recent struggles. The persistent drought has tested the dreams of former Governor Pat Brown, who oversaw the original vision and construction of The California State Water Project in the 1960s. For Brown, the canal system would “correct an accident of people and geography,” pumping vast quantities of northern California’s water up and over the Transverse Ranges, to quench the thirst of urban southern California. On the way there, about 30% of the water distributes to farmers in the central valley.
Climate change increasingly questions the concept of watering the desert. Systems that remove water from the natural cycle between mountains, rivers and oceans now face greater evaporation from rising temperatures. They compound the losses for estuaries and fish at the mouth of the diverted rivers. In an era always more inclined to divide than unite, the conflict between human-centered water projects and natural systems remains great in the state of California.
“California is running on empty,” one road sign proclaims. “Build Dams Now.” Another cries out “Save California’s Water” with the hashtag “Build #moreDAMstorage.” I pass windrows of dead, uprooted trees, vast fields turned fallow, tumbleweeds twirling across the interstate.
There are no easy answers, nor is the future certain. What persists is the power of water: as central to our lives as air. The values that we bring to water’s use must, most of all, include gratitude for its gifts. Included in our thanks might be an acknowledgement that we are not the only architects of desire.