The ongoing Oroville Dam crisis has received modest national attention, in part because the press hasn’t figured out how to blame it on Trump. Moreover, attributing the surfeit of water to global warming, the only other respectable choice, seems inane.
But the history of California water projects is worth considering in some depth. The struggles over California infrastructure—not only physical edifices but also the tremendously influential 1974 movie Chinatown—have played a central role in some of the bigger changes in public and elite attitudes.
California led the way into big-government modernism by building dams for the masses, then into postmodernist disdain for the palpable. The main constant has been that everything gets more expensive.
Without massive infrastructure to store and move water, California (current population: 39 million) wouldn’t support a sizable population. In 1846, the number of Spanish-speakers in Alta California was likely under 10,000.
Enterprising American settlers quickly began to exploit the ample water that falls, erratically, on the mountains of the northern half of the state. Eventually, this led to the beginnings of a backlash: The city of San Francisco damming and inundating the magnificent Hetch-Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park was key to the rise of the Sierra Club in the early 1900s.
Southern California, however, required even larger investments to obtain water. Three vast 20th-century aqueduct projects made possible the tremendous growth of Southern California’s population: the Owens Valley Aqueduct, the Colorado River Aqueduct, and, finally, the State Water Project of Gov. Pat Brown (current governor Jerry Brown’s dad), of which the threatened Oroville Dam was the centerpiece.