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Desert living was never cheap or easy

By Leon Worden
Wednesday, May 22, 1996

C
ivilization dawned because of it. Biblical cities rose up around it. Wars were fought over it, and great armies were wiped out as their kings usurped each other's rights to it.

It's interesting: we have progressed to a point where we rarely think about it anymore. We take it for granted. Yet it is no less important today — and no less scarce — than it was when the first organized settlements took shape in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley some 10,000 years ago.

It, of course, is water.

Without the massive volumes of potable water that our industrial captains brought to Southern California within the past century, greater Los Angeles would have remained a generally uninviting, semi-arid desert, inhabited only along its seasonal rivers and rare mountain streams.

But the water came — unprecedented torrents of it, at unprecedented cost, through waterways that eclipsed the canal systems of ancient Mesopotamia. Today, greater Los Angeles is a modern-day Babylon.

The seven-year drought that ended in 1992 wasn't even a hiccup in time. Yet it was enough to remind Southlanders what an incredible challenge it is for water providers to keep our nature-defying cities from returning to dust.

Water was rationed in much of the state. Purveyors hiked rates. Car washing was outlawed. Shrubbery was sustained with recycled water or not at all. Hardware stores ran out of green spray paint when people started using it on brown lawns.

But not here. Not in Santa Clarita. We had multiple water sources and huge transmission pipelines through which we could pump groundwater to parched areas of our valley, thanks to some advance planning decades earlier.

The die was cast in 1960, when California voters approved the state's largest bond measure to finance the world's largest water delivery system. The bonds built the monumental California Aqueduct and numerous reservoirs, including Castaic Lake, where water from northern California is stored before it is purified and funneled to our faucets.

Not all communities wanted a piece of the action. Those that opted not to hook up, pay the price of rationing in drought years.

Major Santa Clarita landowners in the early 1960s were shifting their focus from farming and ranching to housing, the highest and best use for land in an era that would see ex-GIs and baby boomers migrate west by the millions. If the region was to handle the anticipated population explosion, it would need more water.

It got both. We hooked up, and the Upper Santa Clara Water Agency formed in 1962 to distribute the water to an area whose population would soar ten-fold over the next 30 years. Indeed, our once-rural valley's transformation into a vibrant, upscale family community with all the commensurate social and economic amenities would not have been possible without the supplemental State Water that the agency provided.

Now called the Castaic Lake Water Agency, its mission is the same today as it was in 1962: to bring reliable, high quality water to the Santa Clarita Valley, at a reasonable cost.

Straightforward? Yes. Simple? Never.

The agency must stay one step ahead of the game to make sure current water users aren't short-changed by new development. Several years ahead, in fact.

Under agency law, current water users pay only for what they use, and not for costs associated with new development. The capital improvement projects that are underway right now, financed by current and future users in proportion to the benefits they receive, are designed to meet the needs of the Santa Clarita Valley through the year 2010.

The latest figures indicate that while growth won't occur on the par of the 1980s, the housing market will strengthen in the near term. The agency must lay new pipelines, create a reclaimed water system and purchase new State Water entitlements before the end of this century if current and future residents want to avoid rationing.

Eventually, the agency will need to double the capacity of both the Earl Schmidt and the Rio Vista water treatment facilities, the latter of which opened for use last fall and for public display last week.

Bringing water to places that nature didn't deem fit for colossal human habitation has never been cheap or easy. Ultimately, the decision to live here was, and is, ours.

Thousands of years ago, the individuals who were responsible for the distribution and allocation of water to their townspeople enjoyed elevated status in society because of the importance of the work they did.

When the eleven members of the Castaic water board express concerns about redevelopment proposals that threaten their existing monetary resources while they plan essential system upgrades of their own, it should be remembered that theirs is intrinsically one of the most critical and challenging public services of them all.

* * *

The culturally literate won't want to miss "Noche Mexicana," an evening of live mariachi music and ballet folklorico starting at 7:00 p.m. this Friday, May 24 in the Valencia High School theater. Tickets are $5 at the door. Information: 294-1188.

* * *
Further reading:
  • Castaic Lake Water Agency Data Document, Reiter-Lowry Consultants, April 12, 1996.
  • Nissen, Hans J. The Early History of the Ancient Near East, 9000-2000 B.C., University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1988.
  • Reynolds, Jerry. Santa Clarita: Valley of the Golden Dream, World of Communications, Inc., Granada Hills, Calif. 1992.
    Leon Worden is a Santa Clarita resident.

    ©1996 LEON WORDEN — ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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