A Usable Past: How Norris Hundley, Jr. Schooled California on the Meaning of Water


By its title, Norris Hundley, Jr.'s "The Great Thirst: Californians and Water" announces its stress-inducing subject.

By its first words, this magnificent book quietly establishes its narrative arc: "Once it was a far different place. Aboriginal California, with 275,000 to 300,000 residents by current reckoning, was among the most densely populated areas in North America at the time of European contact, but the native peoples left scarcely an imprint on the waterscape or landscape."

The same cannot be said for the Euro-Americans who invaded this region beginning with the Spanish colonizers in the mid-18th century; ever since, as a quick look out any window or windshield makes clear, we have disrupted and rearranged waterways to fuel contemporary life. In setting up this cultural discontinuity as the book's leitmotif, Hundley lays down a devastating critique of the world we have built.

The Chumash, Serrano, and Tongva lived close to nature, we could not be more artificial; they lived in Eden, we in hell.

However problematic this subtext, it gives "The Great Thirst" an intellectual energy that sweeps the reader through what could have been an impenetrable 564 pages of text. Let me put it this way: If you have any interest learning more about the profound role that water has played in the making of the Golden State -- and Los Angeles -- then you must read this richly detailed and seminal book.

Especially check out its second edition, which appeared a little over a decade ago. Written when Hundley, a long-time member of the UCLA History Department, was at the height of his powers, it remains the most compelling analysis of water politics in this state and is a model for the kind of rigorous research that should be replicated across the arid West. With his death at 77 on April 28, "The Great Thirst" serves as an enduring marker of Hundley's penetrating insights and beguiling prose.

It is how he put words on the page that routinely catches my students' eyes, too. Actually, I can pinpoint the paragraph that over the years they have singled out as the moment when they realized they were in the hands of a master storyteller.

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At the close of the second chapter, in which Hundley probes the Spanish and Mexican water regimes and their shared conviction that the natural world "constituted a divine gift to be subdued and exploited in the name of God and civilization," he looks backward and forward. "Admittedly, Spain and Mexico's imprint on the waterscape differed significantly from that of Aboriginal Californians, but it paled in comparison with what was to come." Savvy to that final sentence's foreboding tone, my students nonetheless delight in its clever foreshadowing.

The bulk of the book builds on that transitional claim, too, demonstrating the various legal, political, and economic strategies that the American interlopers brought to bear on California's water resources. Whether they blasted vast quantities of water against Sierra hillsides to wash out gold, or drained lakes to farm former wetlands, or diverted rivers to irrigate cash crops, or constructed aqueducts, canals, and pipelines to move water hundreds of miles to metropolitan centers and their thirsty residents, lawns, and industries, since the 1840s the impulse has been to dominate, manage, and control.

Norris Hundley. | Photo: Courtesy UCLA
Norris Hundley. | Photo: Courtesy UCLA

What makes Hundley's argument about this quest for hegemony so important is his recognition that no individual set of political actors has been able to dictate the terms by which water moves across the state. Urban and rural interests have long contested with one another; local, state, and federal water-management agencies have worked at cross-purposes; and Big Ag and commercial fisheries have battled in and out of court. In his careful articulation of these and other tensions, Hundley has forced historians of water in the west to adopt more nuanced interpretations of the region's hydraulic societies and their contentious hierarchies of power.

That may be the most compelling aspect of Hundley's scholarship, argues Lafayette College historian Donald C. Jackson. A good friend of and collaborator with Hundley -- next year the pair's co-authored book about the infamous St. Francis Dam disaster will appear -- Jackson has a rich appreciation for the significance of his colleague's work.

Through his study of "Mexican and U.S. claims to the Colorado River, his history of the Colorado Compact that established the 'Law of the River' for the most important surface water source in the Southwest, and in his magisterial text, 'The Great Thirst,' Norris created a far-reaching structure for scholars to build on in their research into the central place of water in the political economy of the American West." More important, Jackson told me, was that while Hundley never "shied away from exploring the intricacies of western water politics, he also valued clarity and accessibility in his voluminous scholarship, hoping to make the complexity of water history understandable to the public."

What his readers needed to understand, Hundley concluded in the book, is that the state's exploding population, flawed political culture, and archaic laws that enriched "those agricultural interests holding rights to 77 percent of the state's developed water supply" were devastating the "qualities that once made California one of the most desirable places on earth."

To reclaim this good land and its Edenic promise, Hundley urged "the electorate to abandon those attitudes and institutions that were born of an earlier era when abundance encouraged abuse" -- wise counsel that also serves as a fitting epitaph for this brilliant scholar.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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