American Desert Southwest

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The history of development the American desert southwest was crucially dependent on bringing water resources into this semiarid region. much of California, especially the Los Angeles region, was regarded as worthless desert scrubland until huge water projects designed by the Bureau of Land Reclamation diverted rivers and resources from all over the West. In the years between 1911 and 1923 the California water department under the leadership of William Mulholland quietly purchased most of the water rights to the Owens Valley at the foot of the Sierra Nevada, then constructed a 233-mile (373km) long aqueduct to bring this water to Los Angeles. When the local owens Valley ranchers saw their water supplies dry up, they repeatedly dynamited the aqueduct, until Mulholland effectively declared war on the ranchers of the owens Valley, protecting the aqueduct with a massive show of armed forces. This was the beginning of the present-day California aqueduct system, forming the branch known as the Los Angeles aqueduct.

The California aqueduct is presently 444 miles (715 km) long, and much of it consists of a concrete-lined channel typically 40 feet (12 m) wide and 30 feet (9 m) deep. The aqueduct has several sections, one starting at the San Joaquin-Sacramento River delta, to the san Luis Reservoir, then south to Los Angeles, with a branch heading to the coast in between. The California aqueduct meets the Los Angeles aqueduct north of Los Angeles, and the two systems distribute their water to the valley and thirsty residents of the city.

In the late 1800s geologist and explorer John Wesley Powell explored the West and warned that the water resources in the region were not sufficient for extensive settlement. But Congress went forward with a series of massive dam projects along the Colorado River, including the Hoover Dam, Glen Canyon Dam, and countless others across the region. These dams changed natural canyons and wild rivers into passive reservoirs that now feed large cities including Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Use of water from the Colorado became so extensive that by 1969, where the river once flowed to the sea, no more water was flowing in the lower Colorado, the delta environment was destroyed, and water that Mexico used to rely on was no longer available.

Reliance on distant water sources to live in a desert may not seem the wisest of decisions, but much of California and the desert Southwest lives off of water diverted from resources in the owens Valley, the Trinity River, the Colorado River, and many other western sources. Some conservationists, such as M. Reisner (author of Cadillac Desert, 1986) paint an ominous picture of development of the American desert Southwest that has many parallels to ill-fated societies elsewhere in world history. It is becoming increasingly difficult to continue to expand development in the desert and demand increasingly more water resources from a depleting source. Many of the soils are becoming too salty to sustain agriculture. With predictions of global climate change and expanding deserts, the future of the region must be critically examined so the nation can prepare for greater water crises.

Colorado River Map

Aqueduct/canal State boundary Country boundary

© Infobase Publishing



150 miles i i


150 km

Aqueduct/canal State boundary Country boundary

© Infobase Publishing

Map of California showing the locations of the aqueducts bringing water from the mountains of the Sierra Nevada and from Mono Lake to water-thirsty Los Angeles

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The Basic Survival Guide

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