“Water is important to people who do not have it,” wrote Joan Didion in “Holy Water,” her 1968 essay, “and the same is true of control.”
Didion, a native of California, where water rights were and are an ongoing source of controversy, is interested in this essay “not in the politics of water, but the waterworks themselves.” She praises the sophistication of the system that delivers “the glass of water I will have tonight in a restaurant in Hollywood,” and concludes that such a system does not only call for, but demands “prodigious coordination, precision and the best efforts of several human minds and that of a Univac 418.”
I know as well as the next person that there is considerable transcendent value in a river running wild and undammed… but I have also lived underneath such a river when it was running in flood, and gone without showers when it was running dry.
No matter the administered stuff: precision, coordination, competence, and control are crucial. And metaphors aside, the recent tragedies of Hurricane Katrina and the spill in the Gulf speak to the harm done by administrations, administrative regimes, and administrators that, and who, have failed to guard and protect the most precious resources—constituents not the least among them.
Our systems function and fail, live and die, at the mercy of the administrative, and the administrator. Didion’s desire to deliver water to the people of southern California is a desire to take personal control of that process, to administer and allocate a precious resource, to act as a sort of administrator.
I wanted to open and close the Clifton Court Forebay intake gate. I wanted to produce some power down at the San Louis Dam. I wanted to pick a pool at random on the Aqueduct and pull it down and then refill it, watching for the hydraulic jump. I wanted to put some water over the hill and I wanted to shut down all the flow from the Aqueduct into the Bureau of Reclamation’s Cross Valley Canal, just to see how long it would take somebody over at Reclamation to call up and complain…I want it still.
But you can’t just do that. Where there is administration there must also exist a system for accountability and responsibility—and this system, in turn, requires administration. When vigilance fails and administrative responsibilities are shirked, all hell will eventually break loose pursuant to principles too familiar to recount. Water will run free and flow in deference to the laws of gravity, and we’ll consider ourselves lucky if all the oil that’s spilled at least does us the favor of floating to the top.