Hoffman on Hundley, 'The Great Thirst: Californians and Water: A History'

Author: 
Norris Hundley, Jr.
Reviewer: 
Abraham Hoffman

Norris Hundley, Jr. The Great Thirst: Californians and Water: A History. Revised Edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. xxiii + 801 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-520-22456-8.

Reviewed by Abraham Hoffman (Department of History, Los Angeles Valley College) Published on H-California (October, 2001)

Satisfying a Thirst (and Hunger) for Knowledge

Satisfying a Thirst (and Hunger) for Knowledge

A decade ago Norris Hundley published the first edition of The Great Thirst, bringing the story right down to the present time in 1991. Because of then-current water issues, he rather tentatively made the subtitle "1770s-1990s." In reviewing that edition I noted that his last chapter seemed more like a status report than a history and ventured the opinion that a secnd edition would have to appear in ten years. Right on target comes this heavily revised edition, with Hundley standing on firmer ground, as the subtitle now proclaims the work "A History."

And what a history it is. This is much more than a book about Californians and their water, for Hundley of necessity includes all the ramifications and challenges of water resources: growing population, environmental hazards, electrical power, conflicting bureaucracies at federal, state, county, city, and special district levels; the rivalry of agriculture and metropolitan areas, historic conflicts such as the battles for Hetch Hetchy and Mono Lake, legal precedents, and much, much more. Hundley does not see a monolithic villain in all this; special interests come in many guises, sometimes rivaling others yet becoming allies in marriages of convenience.

Hundley considers all these matters in a highly readable narrative that engages (and sometimes enrages) the reader, taking time to explain complex issues succinctly if possible, at length if not. End notes run to 115 pages, the bibliography another eighty pages, utilizing archival materials, oral histories, newspapers, court cases, government publications, statutes, and a thorough list of secondary sources.

Usually second or revised editions are not reviewed, but Hundley has extensively rewritten two chapters dealing with water issues since the 1960s. Chapter 7, "Water Policy at a Crossroads," has been tripled in size and is now 180 pages long, a tour de force of summarizing and assessing recent events and trends. Closure comes to the Los Angeles and Mono Lake-Owens Valley issues, though Hundley cautions that where water is concerned, the struggle never really ends; it just finds a new and often unexpected way to continue the fight. Other problems continue, and still others arise--in the San Francisco Bay Delta, between the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and San Diego, between corporations that want to wheel water to urban areas ready to pay for it, farmers who still insist on growing alfalfa, the decline of open space, climatological change, and even hopes for reform.

The sheer number of issues surrounding water may stun readers and certainly leave them with a sense of frustration. State leaders are locked into political compromise, pressure from lobbyists, and their own viewpoints on the state's water future. Hundley carries current political issues to about October 2000, truly the latest possible date (and a tribute to his ability to place issues in perspective) prior to publication in July 2001. These issues threaten to intimidate the general reader who may see the book as medicine: unpleasant to take despite the need to do so. I would suggest that the University of California Press consider separating the book into two volumes for its third edition. The Press might also want to think about issuing "Water Policy at a Crossroads" as a separate work in a paperback edition that would find an audience in California history and environmental studies as well as offer general readers a valuable analysis on where California is headed with its water resources and what is being done (or not done) about them.

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Citation: Abraham Hoffman. Review of Hundley, Norris, Jr., The Great Thirst: Californians and Water: A History. H-California, H-Net Reviews. October, 2001. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=5537

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