By Nathanael Johnson
11 May 2015
(Grist) – Like lots of people in drought-desiccated California, I have been hustling to educate myself about the power dynamics of water in the state. And so I read this appreciation of California water historian, Norris Hundley Jr., with great interest. It portrays Hundley as the historian whose picture is the most realistic — the one who surveyed the academic skirmishes among his colleagues, and came away with something better.
John Christensen, an environmental writer with too many titles to list here, wrote that appreciation of Hundley. I asked him: If I wanted to read just one book about water in California, should I choose Hundley’s The Great Thirst? His answer: Yep.
Another writer, John Fleck, echoed the endorsement. Fleck points out that, while others have portrayed California’s water shenanigans as the schemes of “a conspiratorial power elite” (Hundley’s words), Hundley delves into the muddled mess of democracy: “a compound of interest-group pressures, local and regional considerations, political trade-offs, and the larger context of American political culture.”
Hundley doesn’t say it, but I read this as an “anti-Cadillac Desert” argument, an argument against Marc Reisner’s grand federalist conspiracy, the great centralized something-ocracy that Donald Worster so elegantly offered up in Rivers of Empire. I spent a lot of time in the blind alley those two books sent me down, but the Reisner/Worster narrative kept clashing with the messy reality my journalism encountered daily. Donald Pisani, another of the western water historians, makes a similar critique, explicitly, of Reisner and Worster in “The Irrigation District and the Federal Relationship,” an essay published in the 1989 book The Twentieth century West: Historical interpretations.
I wish I’d read Hundley more carefully, and sooner. If Hundley is right – and I think he is – it has important implications for what we do with water policy today.
It sounded like the most nuanced book to read — if not the most exciting (who doesn’t love a grand conspiracy!) — so I ordered it. But when it arrived, I was dismayed: The thing is an 800-page doorstop. I’m not going to try to condense the whole book here. But I do want to share some of the most interesting facts and insights I found myself underlining. (I also plan to go back and read Reisner’s Cadillac Desert to see whether I agree with these critiques of his much-loved book — but that’s for another day.) […]
Hundley ends the book with a plea for the electorate to “abandon those attitudes and institutions that were born of an earlier era when abundance encouraged abuse.” The state has never completely moved past its Gold Rush beginnings — where resources were plentiful and available to the intrepid, where the initiative of the individual was valued over the good of the community. Today’s drought might give us the opportunity, finally, to rebalance that equation. [more]