Controlling water and life by remote control

"In Holy Water," Didion focuses on her fascination with water. She visits the Operations Control Center for the California State Water Project and describes the experience in a rather giddy tone, often repeating herself, citing seemingly unimportant details, and using long run-on sentences. After describing the simplicity of moving water in theory, Didion, in the following passage, proceeds to contrast it and the complexity of moving water in practice.

In practice, this requires prodigious coordination, precision, and the best efforts of several human minds and that of a Univac 418. In practice it might be necessary to hold large flows of water for power production, or to flush out encroaching salinity in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the most ecologically sensitive point on the system. In practice a sudden rain might obviate the need for a delivery when that delivery is already on its way. In practice what is being delivered here is an enormous volume of water, not quarts of milk or spools of thread, and it takes two days to move such a delivery down through Oroville into the Delta, which is the great pooling place for California water and has been for some years alive with electronic sensors and telemetering equipment and men blocking channels and diverting flows and shoveling fish away from the pumps. It takes perhaps another six days to move this same water down the California Aqueduct from the Delta to the Tehachapi and put it over the hill to Southern California. "Putting something over the hill" is what they say around the Project Operations Control Center when they want to indicate that they are pumping Aqueduct water from the floor of the San Joaquin Valley up and over the Tehachapi Mountains. "Pulling it down" is what they say when they want to indicate that they are lowering water level somewhere in the system. They can put some over the hill by remote control from this room in Sacramento with its Univac and its big board and its flashing lights. They can pull down a pool in the San Joaquin by remote control from this room in Sacramento with its locked doors and its ringing alarms and its constant print-outs of data from sensors out there in the water itself. From this room in Sacramento the whole system takes on the aspect of a perfect three-billion dollar hydraulic toy, and in certain ways, it is. "LET'S START DRAINING QUAIL AT 12:00" was at 10:51 A.M. entry on the electronically recorded communications log the day I visited the Operations Control Center. "Quail" is a reservoir in Los Angelos County with a gross capacity of 1,636,018,000 gallons. "OK" was the response recorded in the log. I knew at that moment that I had missed the only vocation for which I had any instinctive affinity: I wanted to drain Quail myself. [Didion 61-62]

Questions

1. She fervently emphasizes the importance of the work of the Project Operations Control Center in the first half of the paragraph, detailing the effects of transporting water and the scale at which it is done. But by the end, the system becomes merely a "three-billion dollar hydraulic toy" with which workers play like a video game — enclosed by technology, moving everything by remote control. What might be the causes of this dramatic change in her perception of the seriousness of the Water Project?

2. Didion cites water as the only natural force humans control. At the end of the paragraph, she states her desire to drain Quail — to be the one pushing the buttons that control the billion+ gallons in the reservoir. However, at the end of the essay, she extrapolates that desire for control to other childish and irresponsible desires to create disorder by toying with the water. Though written in 1977, how does Didion's attitude toward water control reflect the 1960s?

3. Didion describes the Delta as being "alive with electronic sensors and telemetering equipment," and goes to great lengths to describe the technology of the place, but only in superficial terms. How does she relate to the technology (here and throughout The White Album), and how is this reflective of the times?


Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses Joan Didion

11 September 2007