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A Speculative Atlas of California

Set against a backdrop of drought in the American West and the spiraling impacts of climate change, Watershed surveys the vast California water system in its natural and engineered forms. Exploring themes of control and powerlessness, precarity and resilience, damage and remediation, the project dwells on the ecological—and existential—problem of water in California while speculating on the state’s social-environmental futures.

The physical and political landscapes of California have been shaped by a fundamental problem of hydrology: most of the state’s water falls in the far north where most of its people are not. The horn-rimmed prophet of the California Water Plan in the 1950s and 60s, Governor Pat Brown, called this inversion of water supply to water demand a mere “accident of people and geography”—as if no more troublesome than an engineer’s rounding error. He made correcting the aberration central to his legacy, which to this day defines modern California.

California’s ten geographic drainage basins and 190 distinct watersheds want to obey gravity and topography and move water across the state from the Cascade, Sierra Nevada and Coast Ranges to the Pacific Ocean. Overriding this natural order—through engineered and terraformed systems that control and redirect the flow of water across watersheds, generally from north to south—has allowed cities to bloom where they outstrip local resources, and agricultural empires to be built on shifting desert sands.

Los Angeles. San Francisco. San Diego. The Inland Empire. The San Joaquin Valley, where a quarter of the country’s and much of the world’s produce is grown. None of these places would exist as they do today without the 13 trillion gallons of water that is shunted around California every year. This is a quantity of water so vast it could drown most of the land mass of Florida, or transform Oklahoma into an inland sea. It is more water than was ever moved anywhere by anyone in human history.

By surveying these technological landscapes, Watershed is an invitation to consider what has been both gained and lost in California’s ongoing quest to harness its most precious resource.

This portfolio shows a small representative selection of images from the larger Watershed project, field work on which will be completed in 2023.