Maria Gutzeit | Water: The Lifeblood of the West


Like shade on a hot day, water in the West is our unsung hero. As a child growing up in the Midwest, I thought water was just always there. We didn’t even have sprinklers. No one did. Exploring the outdoors of the West, as we now do every summer, really makes you respect water. 

Many folks have been to Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. It’s gorgeous but also hot and dry. One of my favorite places is just around the corner from the main entrance: Mossy Cave Trail. In the middle of the red rock desert is a waterfall and a stream. The water here comes from the labor of Mormon pioneers, who worked only with picks and shovels. Completed in 1892, the Tropic Ditch brought water across the plateau to supply irrigation water to Tropic and Cannonville. Utah’s early history revolves around more than 1,000 miles of largely hand-dug canals built before the 1880s. 

The same story plays out in the Santa Clarita Valley, where, joining in the State Water Project, the nation’s largest state-built water system, changed our future. 

This summer we stopped in Chowchilla for several nights on a road trip north. The heart of the Central Valley, this town is also hot and dry. My morning bike ride took me through fields of trees irrigated with drip irrigation. Our campground had a pool (welcome at 104F) and a pond filled with birds. Though Central Valley agriculture certainly has its challenges, water gives this town life, jobs, food production and beauty. 

Proceeding north we passed spreading grounds used to let excess water soak into the groundwater table, levees channeling water through the Sacramento Bay Delta, and more than a few signs calling for dams to be built to store water. Hundreds of miles away, back here in Santa Clarita, SCV Water engineers work on these things, too. 

Our next stop was Redding. One day it was 108F. I took a bike ride on the Sacramento River Trail. Like SCV’s trails, it was clearly a respite for the community, hosting dog walkers, joggers and cyclists. The river had hundreds of birds. Parks were on both banks. The trail ended at Shasta Dam. Shasta Lake, visible to travelers on Interstate 5, was woefully low. A mere five years ago, record rainfall had the lake at 135% of its historical average, and it was releasing water from its top gates. Part of the Federal Water Project, this dam does not store water for Santa Clarita, but, like all reservoirs, it quietly does its job storing water in wet years to supply downstream users. 

After Redding, we arrived to snow flurries in central Oregon. Crater Lake had snow literally up to our noses, and trails were impassable. Snow still dotted the ground near our campground at Diamond Lake, which was at lower elevation. There and in our final destination, Bend, lakes and the rivers (Rogue, Deschutes) were the centers around which towns were built. Water clearly supported the historical economy — logging — and a newer economy: recreation and tourism. 

It’s not always lack of water that’s an issue in the West. While Shasta survived wet years admirably, the near failure of nearby Oroville Dam (which does supply Santa Clarita) in 2017 led to the evacuation of more than 180,000 people. The same year that we cooled our hot toes in the Tropic Ditch, less than 75 miles away the entrance to Zion National Park was wiped out in a flood, as was a campground we had stayed at previously. This year, the Yellowstone area lost structures, bridges and roads to flooding. Many areas of Southern California are struggling with severe water shortages now, but they also have historically suffered flooding and rainfall-driven mudslides. Here in Santa Clarita, planning for rain translates to water supply benefits and planning for drought has put us in a better spot than most. 

Water. Like a shade tree, it’s quietly unappreciated. Wherever you are in the West, or even in our hometown, if you look close enough, you can see how people and animals have artfully built their lives around the force of nature that is water. 

Maria Gutzeit is a chemical engineer, business owner, water agency official, and mom living in Santa Clarita.

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