California and Water: Half Environmental Nightmare, Half Remarkable Success Story

Chasing Water and Dust Across California
By Mark Arax

When delegates to the second International Irrigation Congress convened in Los Angeles in October 1893, pessimism about their mission was not supposed to be on the agenda. The gathering, after all, was meant to encourage reclamation of arid lands throughout the American West, using irrigation to transform an immense wasteland into an agriculturally productive cornucopia. Thus the reaction when John Wesley Powell rose and delivered his now-famous caveat about the limits of development in the region. “Gentlemen,” he told the delegates in the Grand Opera House, “there is not sufficient water to supply these lands.” The gentlemen responded by booing the esteemed explorer off the stage.

Powell’s warning was clearly not what champions of Western agriculture wanted to hear. For them, the problem in the region wasn’t a lack of water, but the fact that too much of it was concentrated in places where it couldn’t be fully used. And so — Powell be damned — they went ahead with their boldest and most ambitious plans to redistribute the precious resource, embarking on a century-long binge of dam-building, aqueduct-laying, canal-digging and well-sinking. The effort, particularly in California, amounted to a wholesale re-engineering of the existing hydrology to suit the needs of ranchers and farmers. It was “California’s irrigated miracle,” as Mark Arax calls it in his new book, “the greatest human alteration of a physical environment in history.”

“The Dreamt Land” is Arax’s exhaustive, deeply reported account of this problematic achievement. Though focused mainly on the present state of affairs in California’s Great Central Valley, the book ranges widely over the course of its 500-plus pages, managing to encompass a capsule history of California before the American conquest, a description of the state’s first attempts at hydraulic engineering during the gold rush (“A miner couldn’t prospect without water,” Arax points out) and an impassioned jeremiad on the intentional decimation of the region’s native populations in the mid-19th century. More to his main theme, Arax also profiles the principal players in what he calls California’s “second rush,” the rise of agriculture that followed in the decades after the gold petered out.

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The real names of these larger-than-life figures may not be familiar, but their popular monikers — the Wheat King, the Cattle King, the Grand Khan of the Kern — tell us what we need to know about them. These were men whose huge ambitions and absence of scruples enabled them to build agrarian empires of a magnitude unimaginable anywhere else in the country. (Cattle King Henry Miller, for instance, “governed more land and riparian water rights than any other man in the United States.”) And although they focused on different agricultural commodities, all of these early land barons had at least one thing in common — a voracious desire to increase the size and productivity of their holdings to the absolute limit of the land’s capacity, and then some.

Little about the agricultural situation in today’s California seems wildly out of tune with this long history of rapacity and environmental abuse. True, the current kings and khans of the Central Valley may not have the colorful nicknames of the giants who preceded them, but their appetite for growth seems just as keen. The difference is that now they can inflict far more extensive damage on the landscape. Thanks to the implementation of major 20th-century engineering efforts like the Central Valley Project and the California Aqueduct, farmers have been able to bring tremendous amounts of marginal and often barely arable land into cultivation. In wet years this is not a problem, and many of us enjoy the bounty of almonds, pistachios and citrus in our supermarkets. But California is subject to extreme annual variations in precipitation. (“There’s no average here,” Arax writes, noting that the state’s rivers and streams can produce anywhere from 30 million to 200 million acre-feet of water from one year to the next.) So when the inevitable multiyear droughts set in, farmers must rely on excessive groundwater pumping to irrigate those endlessly expanding acres of fruit and nut trees, endangering the vast underground aquifer that is arguably the state’s most valuable natural resource.

Given California’s reputation for legislative overkill, it’s astonishing that groundwater pumping has been absolutely unregulated in the state for its entire history. (A new law was recently passed, but farmers have up to 20 years to comply.) With no restrictions in place, landowners have been free to sink as many wells on their property as they like, drilling ever deeper as the water table falls and the shallower wells dry up. In the troubled Westlands Water District, for instance, aggressive pumping during the recent drought depleted the aquifer at a rate of 660,000 acre-feet per year — about as much water as a city of 6.6 million people would use annually.

Maybe the most alarming consequence of this kind of unrestrained pumping is the dramatic subsidence of the land that can occur as the aquifer recedes. In one large area of the Central Valley near a place called Red Top, the earth is sinking nearly a foot per year, buckling infrastructure and rearranging the local topography virtually overnight. And this is not a temporary phenomenon. Once the soil is compressed, even floods on a biblical scale won’t bring it back to its former state. No one knows what this kind of rapid alteration of the landscape will mean over the long term. “As far as impacts go,” one United States Geological Survey employee observes, “we’re in uncharted territory.”

Fortunately, not all of the news in “The Dreamt Land” is so bleak. The chronicle of California agriculture has always been mixed — half environmental nightmare, half remarkable success story — and Arax gives himself enough room to report on the positives as well, profiling a few small growers who have produced marvels (a grape that tastes like cotton candy!) while remaining sensitive to the land and water resources under their stewardship. Granted, there are times when “The Dreamt Land” feels overstuffed and chaotically organized, as if Arax decided to include every relevant newspaper feature he’s ever proposed to an editor. But I suspect that few other journalists could have written a book as personal and authoritative.

Having lived in the Central Valley for most of his life, Arax knows the people and their problems, and he’s spent decades writing about them for The Los Angeles Times and other publications. And as the son and grandson of local farmers (his grandfather Aram grew raisins near Fresno after emigrating from Armenia in 1920), he seems to have a fundamental sympathy for those who till the soil. Maybe that’s why he saves his harshest scorn for the titans of Big Agriculture who, without ever getting their own hands dirty, try to monopolize California’s water, maximizing their own yields while robbing from their less powerful neighbors. As Arax makes plain in this important book, it’s been the same story in California for almost two centuries now: When it comes to water, “the resource is finite. The greed isn’t.”

Gary Krist is the author, most recently, of “The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles.”

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