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That mastery began in the early 1900s, after shallow aquifers and seasonal rivers could no longer sustain Los Angeles. Out of desperation, city engineers began buying up land and water rights in the Owens Valley, east of the Sierra Nevada. In 1913 they completed the 223-mile-long Los Angeles Aqueduct, which sent the entire flow of the Owens River south to the growing city. Within a decade Owens Lake became a dust bowl, and the desert scrubland of the San Fernando Valley was worth millions. The infamous water grab—fictionalized in the 1974 film Chinatown—addicted Los Angeles to water imports and inspired in the rest of the state a deep-seated mistrust of the city that lingers to this day.

The heyday of California water development began in the late 1930s with construction of the colossal Central Valley Project, or CVP. To get water from the wet north to the dry south, the federal Bureau of Reclamation took advantage of the fact that the state's two largest rivers, the Sacramento and San Joaquin, funnel vast amounts of runoff from the High Sierra into a shared delta the size of Rhode Island. By building a big pumping station in the delta at Tracy and connecting it to nearly 500 miles of canals south of the delta, the CVP became a lifeline for the Central Valley. Today it waters more than 10 percent of the entire country's irrigated farmland and enables California to produce fully half the nation's fruits, nuts, and vegetables.

The 1960s brought the State Water Project (SWP), which includes the Oroville Dam, an­other pumping plant near Tracy, and the 444-mile-long California Aqueduct. The SWP now serves 23 million Californians, from north of the Bay Area to the Mexican border, and irrigates 755,000 acres of farmland.

The Peripheral Canal was supposed to be the system's final link, a liquid superhighway around the delta's slow-moving twists and turns. But the state ran out of money, the federal government wanted no part of it, and the growing environmental toll of the previous big water projects sapped political support. In 1982 northern Californians defeated a referendum on the project in a landslide. It was a dead issue—until a three-year drought and a sardine-size fish brought the state to its knees.

Not since the endangered snail darter briefly held up the Tellico Dam in Tennessee during the 1970s has there been such a monumental mismatch. In one corner: the delta's two mighty pumping stations, marshaling a total of nearly half a million horsepower. In the other corner: a silvery fish that lives a year or two at best, requires plenty of cold, clean water, and exists nowhere else on Earth. A 2009 trawl survey netted the fewest smelts ever recorded—less than 2 percent of the number counted in 1993, when the fish was first declared endangered. Chinook salmon had plummeted as well. Invoking the powers of the Endangered Species Act, a federal court placed limits on the pumps at Tracy in an attempt to save the fish.

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