Ain’t that something?” says the coroner in the 1974 movie Chinatown. “Middle of a drought, the water commissioner drowns—only in L.A.” When nine “atmospheric river events” during the three weeks after Christmas 2022 brought California nearly as much precipitation as the state receives in an average year, no government officials lost their lives. But more than 20 residents perished, and the property damage from flooding exceeded $1 billion. Yet no sooner did the skies clear than authorities began reminding California residents that it remained imperative to “conserve water and make conservation a way of life.” “California is experiencing—coincidentally—both a drought emergency and a flood emergency,” said the Department of Water Resources director. Only in CA.

When a state is afflicted by too little water and too much water, simultaneously, one might suppose that the whole point of having a Department of Water Resources is to turn this coincidence into a happy one. California officials cannot protest that the challenge took them by surprise. Chinatown, set in the 1930s, dramatized how securing the benefits water bestows while mitigating the harms it inflicts has shaped California’s history. In Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950–1963 (2009), historian Kevin Starr wrote that California “invented

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