California's Pipe Dream: Edward Burtynsky

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California's Pipe Dream: Edward Burtynsky

In California, 70 percent of the water supply is in the north, but 80 percent of the demand is in the south and midsection. To correct this "accident of people and geography," as a former governor called it, the state spent the past century building an elaborate water-delivery system: giant pumps and some 2,000 miles of canals, pipelines, and aqueducts.

Today this plumbing is badly stressed. A three-year drought has drained reservoirs to their lowest levels in nearly two decades, forcing water restrictions. Warming temperatures have shrunk the Sierra Nevada snowpack, the state’s largest surface-water storehouse. And the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta-a source of irrigation water for millions of acres of farmland as well as drinking water for two-thirds of the state-is increasingly threatened by sea-level rise, urbanization, and the menace of a major earthquake, which could topple delta levees.

Last fall California passed laws that call for cities to cut water use 20 percent by 2020. This year voters will decide whether the state should take on another $11 billion in debt for more water-delivery systems and conservation efforts. Some experts, however, urge a simpler approach: Use drought-resistant plants, recycle wastewater, and learn to live within the resources of an arid landscape.

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