The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has become such a bottleneck that last fall Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the California legislature hammered out the most sweeping overhaul of the state's aging water infrastructure in nearly half a century. The suite of new laws mandates water conservation and attempts to restore the delta ecosystem and secure reliable water supplies for the state's growing population. It also resurrects a proposal that's been controversial for 30 years—a giant, ten-billion-dollar ditch known as the Peripheral Canal that would bypass the delta altogether. For decades, northern Californians have seen the mammoth project as just one more water grab by the state's crowded, parched south. Southern Californians see it as, by and large, the key to their continued prosperity and survival.
If built, the Peripheral Canal would be the latest link in a Rube Goldberg system of pumps, pipes, dams, tunnels, and canals constructed over the past century that now slake the thirst of more than two-thirds of the state's population. The system also waters nearly all the state's eight million acres of irrigated cropland as well as the tenth largest economy on Earth—in a climate that varies from temperate rain forest in the northwest to true desert in the south. It's probably no coincidence that Goldberg, a cartoonist famous for drawing absurdly complex machines, began his career as a water and sewer engineer for the city of San Francisco.
The reason behind the convoluted system is simple math. Roughly 70 percent of California's available water falls as rain or snow in the less populated north. Meanwhile, 80 percent of the demand lies in the southern two-thirds of the state, much of which gets just a few inches of rain a year. Former governor Pat Brown, who some 40 years ago built the California Aqueduct to connect the delta to southern California's cities, said he did so to "correct an accident of people and geography."
But as anyone familiar with the state's fractious water history will tell you, southern California's ever swelling population was no accident. Rather, it was the result of numerous audacious water projects designed to keep people coming. "The value of our homes, businesses, and the security of our jobs all depend upon an ample water supply," shouts a 1928 government film made to whip up support for an aqueduct from the Colorado River. "If we are to survive and to grow, we must have the water that will enable us to maintain our mastery of the desert!"