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That Feud Between NorCal and SoCal? Time to Get Over It

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Just one state. | Photo: Ken Lund/Flickr/Creative Commons License

It was the first thing I learned about California, really: that north and south don't get along. Oh, there were the random pieces of knowledge any American kid picked up from TV in the 1960s and 1970s: that San Francisco had hills that made cop cars catch air; that the hills around Los Angeles had scraggly shrubs instead of trees; that downtown Burbank was beautiful.

But that was all image. The rivalry between North and South California was a real, bone-deep fact about California. It had roots as old as 1850, when pro-slavery southern Californians made the first real attempt to split the state. And when I landed in California in 1982, at age 22, I chose a side: I was, emphatically, a northerner.

But there comes a time when one puts away childish things. The division between Northern and Southern California definitely qualifies. Whatever parochial differences once seemed to divide the two ends of the state are increasingly trivial. It's time we all got over them.

Despite identifying as a Northern Californian, I've written at least part of this post from Burbank, those earlier descriptions of which I have decided may have been intended as tongue-in-cheek. I lived in Northern California for a quarter century, and am nearing a decade in SoCal. It took me a couple years here to start realizing I'd been sold a spurious rivalry between NorCal and SoCal.

For one thing, it seems to be Northerners who really feel that rivalry. People from SoCal, it turned out, seem to love the Northern part of the state, to want to visit and spend money there and imagine living there someday, which just infuriates people from Northern California all the more.

The stereotypes I learned were pretty straightforward. Northern California was oak-studded hills, redwood trees and glacier-polished granite domes; Southern California was smog, congested freeways and endless expanses of terra cotta roofs. Northern California was the Whole Earth Catalog: Southern California was the John Birch Society. Northern California was Small is Beautiful: Southern California was Mall is Beautiful.

But mostly, when I arrived in Berkeley in 1982, Northern California was home to rivers full of wild native fish, and Southern California was trying to build a Peripheral Canal to steal that water. Northern California's water. Our water.

It's a handy story. But it obscures a whole lot more than it illuminates.

The dividing line between Northern and Southern California is a matter of opinion. The Tehachapi Mountains are often suggested as a natural dividing line, but they're not a perfect border. For one thing, residents of Bakersfield may have something to say about being lumped in with residents of Mendocino and Nevada City as Northern Californians. For another, it's a coastal-centric definition. More than 40,000 square miles of the state lie well east of the Tehachapis. Some of that area, like in the Colorado Desert, would clearly belong in Southern California, but what of the Mojave? What of the Owens Valley?

Another definition, and one often used by demographers, takes advantage of a handy feature that jumps out at you when you look at a map of California's counties. There's a nearly straight line that separates Monterey, Kings, Tulare, and Inyo counties on the north from San Luis Obispo, Kern, and San Bernardino counties on the south.

Northern California counties in red | Photo: Reverend Mick man34/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons License


That line has an uncomfortable, if slightly indirect, historical association with those pro-slavery Southern Californians: it's about 48 miles south of the 36°30′ Missouri Compromise line between Slave and Free states that became the first seriously proposed division between California's two largest provinces.

It's also entirely arbitrary. Residents of coastal Monterey and SLO counties, for instance, have more in common than either does with those living on their side of the line elsewhere in the state. The same goes for people across the line from each other in the San Joaquin Valley and in the desert.

If we were to divide up the state based on actual geography, and the regional and lifestyle affinities that geography promotes in the people who live in a particular area, then the San Joaquin Valley and the desert might well work as their own pieces of what was once California. Monterey and SLO would likely be part of a state of Coastal California. And there'd be no real reason not to include both Los Angeles and the Bay Area in that coastal state, which brings us back to square one.

The real conflict between NorCal and SoCal is a parochial rivalry between Greater Los Angeles on one side, and the conurbation stretching from the Bay Area to Sacramento on the other, with the rest of the state dragged along for the ride whether they want to be or not.

Ask a resident of Alturas, or of Calexico, whether she feels any closer an affiliation to either San Francisco or Los Angeles, and you might get a surprising answer. Both megacities are generally perceived by other Californians as hungry economic empires that consume the resources of the rest of California.

The Cascades, southern terminus of the Owens Valley aqueduct | Photo: Konrad Summers/Flickr/Creative Commons License


If California had to choose just one unhappy bit of history to serve as its Original Sin, the campaign of genocide against the state's Native inhabitants would have to be it. But our wholesale diversion of the state's watercourses is certainly a candidate for runner-up. The successful diversion of the Owens River to Los Angeles' water mains in 1913 is the archetype of our state's relationship to water. In the months between LADWP's surreptitious buyout of land and water rights in the Owens Valley, and William Mulholland's famous "There it is, take it" speech when water reached the aqueduct's southern terminus, the mythos of Southern California as rapacious thief of other regions' water was solidified.

And there's truth to that myth. Modern-day Los Angeles would never have happened were it not for that water from the Owens River, and then the Mono Basin and the Colorado and the streams of the Sierra Nevada and Klamaths all being diverted to water its industry, its suburban housing tracts.

But that myth also offers many Northern Californians an excuse for convenient finger-pointing. This was brought home to me one day when I was working in San Francisco's North Beach as editor of Earth Island Journal. During a meeting with a local environmentalist, said environmentalist -- born and raised in San Francisco -- referred to Southern California as having "stolen our water."

There is, of course, precious little water in San Francisco's rivers and streams for Los Angeles to have stolen. Just as the Southern California megalopolis couldn't have arisen without imports of water from a dozen other watersheds, San Francisco would not have grown much after the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire without tapping its own exotic watershed: that of the Tuolumne River in Yosemite National Park. After a bitter political fight, construction of the O'Shaughnessy Dam was approved in 1913, the same year Mulholland offered up the Owens River to Angelenos. Opposition to the dam in Hetch Hetchy sparked the creation of the Sierra Club, which John Muir founded to fight the project. The dam also played a role in the founding of the National Park Service, with backers using the controversy to point up the need for a federal agency devoted to keeping the growing roster of National Parks protected from industrial development.

In other words, San Francisco owes its existence to "stolen" water every bit as much as Los Angeles does. Without Hetch Hetchy there'd be no City by the Bay. San Jose and big parts of the southern East Bay rely on water from the Tuolumne as well, and Oakland and Berkeley in turn grew after tapping the Mokelumne River to the north.

In the mid-20th Century, with the construction of the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, more communities were able to tap into water from somewhere else. Seventy percent of the State Water Project's water goes to cities in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, all of it piped in from the Sacramento River and its tributaries.

Northern Californians may feel that using Sacramento River water north of the Tehachapis is more fitting and proper. But an endangered winter-run Sacramento River chinook salmon struggling to survive in a blood-warm stream probably doesn't care whether the sprinkler that took its water is spraying a lawn in Sacramento or San Diego.

San Francisco's "Owens River," the Hetch Hetchy reservoir | Photo: Roger Williams/Flickr/Creative Commons License


A divide between Northern California and Southern California makes a kind of superficial sense: The South is dry and populated; the North is somewhat less populated and has mighty rivers. And it's not hard to decide the stereotype of SoCal as a water-thirsty, unsustainable megalopolis depending on water from other regions has merit. If SoCal's population was limited to that which its own water supply could support in a sustainable way, there'd still be miles of open chaparral along the 10 in the San Gabriel Valley.

But that's not a NorCal versus SoCal thing. Oakland and Berkeley are every bit as unsustainably overpopulated in terms of what local sources of water can support. San Francisco is even worse off, and even the somewhat larger streams of the Peninsula and South Bay couldn't support anything close to the cities that now inhabit their watersheds.

Aside from those burgs that happen to be right on a major river like the Sacramento, Colorado, or Feather, California's cities are based on the notion of taking water from somewhere else. And they've done so regardless of whether they're in NorCal or SoCal.

The development those water imports facilitate is another way in which Northern California cities don't differ much from their SoCal counterparts. Driving the Bay Area's Interstate 580 Corridor isn't substantially different from taking that chaparral-free stretch of the 10 from LA to Covina. Those periodically updated lists of the worst commutes in the country tend to favor SoCal, mainly because there are more cities in SoCal, but NorCal cities are well-represented: an MSN Travel survey earlier this year ranked Antioch in Contra Costa County as having the nation's second worst average commute after New York City.

SoCal got a headstart, and NorCal took some time to catch up. When I arrived in California in 1982 there were still broad patches of land in the Bay Area's valleys that had not yet been developed. Many now sport outlet malls and terra cotta roofs. The Bay Area's Central Valley fringes once had dark skies at night, as recently as the late 1980s, in places like Tracy, where floodlit development now obscures the nighttime stars.

And when it comes to cultural differences between NorCal and SoCal? That vaunted Whole Earth worldview seems to have faded, if it was ever really there in the first place. Though an unidentified household in Beverly Hills has gotten a lot of press lately for using a million gallons of water a month, NorCal has its profligate water wasters as well. And the ecological blitheness of San Francisco's new tech elite is so well-covered as to be trite by now. In 2015 SoCal isn't the exclusive den of ecological iniquity that some of my Northern Californian compatriots once claimed it was. NorCal can be just as ecologically venal.

On the plus side, both North and South boast a committed core of people trying to reduce their footprint, in water use and other ways as well.

Our state's challenges aren't split along an imaginary dividing line. Neither should we be. It's time to drop the trumped-up rivalry and work together to protect what's left of California.

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