At the urging of Urmas Franosch, I just finished reading “The Dreamt Land” by Mark Arax.
Another 520 pages about water and California.
Which is really a story of boom and bust and excess. Of accumulation for the sake of accumulation. Of empire building for the sake of empire building.
“Even newcomers are vaguely aware that the region is semi-arid, that the desert is near, and that all the throbbing, bustling life of Southern California is based on a single, shaky premise.”
That there will be water.
Of course, I laughed at the irony of reading a story set during drought during this period of snowy and rainy excess, but that also makes Arax’s point. “The volatility of its [California’s] nature rubs off on the people from wherever they come. They must conquer a place of too much. Is it any wonder they employ the implements of too much?”
Groundwater pumping, river diversions, dams, water projects … the history of the state is a history of man’s quixotic attempts to tame nature, or as former Governor Pat Brown posited, to correct “accidents of geography.” Namely, that 3/4 of the state’s water supply is located in the northern 1/3 of the state while 3/4 of the water demand is located in the southern 2/3rds.
“By 1920, the growers in Kern were drawing up irrigation districts with no mind to how good or poor the soil was. The growers figured that the bigger they carved out their districts, the more water they could demand from the Kern River and, eventually, whatever government water project got built.”
And politicians like Pat Brown were keen to fulfill such expectations.
“I loved building things. I wanted to build that goddamned water project. I was absolutely determined I was going to pass this California Water Project. I wanted this to be a monument to me.”
But here’s the rub. Supply begets demand. And never in a 1:1 ratio. Because enough is never enough.
So as Arax writes, even though the state received its first warnings one hundred years ago about groundwater pumping, we’re just now getting around to regulating it.
In Kern County, 60-million acre feet of water has been pumped over the past half century.
The water table keeps dropping. Only the wealthy, industrial farmers can continue to sink deeper and deeper wells.
In Kern, Arax says surface resources during wet years supply 3.1 million acre-feet of water. But the annual water need is 3.5 million acre-feet. So even in years such as this, there is still an annual water deficit.
And far too much acreage which is still in production because groundwater pumping regulations haven’t taken effect – Arax estimates one-third of Kern’s cropland will be fallowed when this occurs.
But is it too late? “Irrigation mired and salted up their fields the same way it had mired and salted up the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and the Euphrates 4,000 years ago. As one west side rancher put it, ‘We’re shitting up our own bed. Even a puppy dog knows better.’”
And what is too late? In California, whether farmer or not, it always seems like a running game of musical chairs. Can one get in and get out before the music stops?
As Chief Tenaya of the Ahwahnechee is quoted as saying, “White men, you are a bad people. You have invaded my country. You have killed my people simply because we have stolen a few horses – a privilege granted to us by the Great Spirit. We steal that we may live. You steal among yourselves that you may be rich; we steal something to eat.”
Arax describes this cycle of life, this historical use, as jumping from gold to cattle to wheat to fruits & veggies and ultimately to houses & cities. “Each model of extraction had its life span, and it was best not to romanticize one over the other, lest you not see when the time for change had come. The rich man who waxed sentimental wasn’t a rich man for very long.”
Mammoth would seem to fit at the end of this list … the second home and city to provide relief from the rest of the state’s houses and cities.
Arax’s book was written in 2016 during severe drought, though he adds an epilogue of flood and wet from 2017.
Which would then be followed by even greater drought.
The Nut Rush, a phrase he uses to describe the boom in pistachio and almond farming (as opposed to the ever-increasing nuttiness of the human population) of the past few decades seems to be an end game rush. There are two principle reasons.
1. “If you’re going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars sinking a new well more than a thousand feet deep, you might as well do it in the name of a crop that can turn you into a multimillionaire.” Why? Because almonds are considered great delicacies in India and China and fetch princely sums. Even if it requires, according to Arax, a gallon on average to grow one almond.
2. “A nut doesn’t require a hand to pick it.” Addressing the increasingly thorny issue of labor.
A third advantage of almonds and pistachios is that the trees can handle a bit of salinity in the water.
Arax talks about the prophecy in the Book of Genesis where Joseph spends seven years storing food and preparing for the hard times to come.
He then writes, “We have a prophecy, too. It’s called history. We’ve always had droughts and always will. But we pretend it’s not going to happen again.”
And in between those periods of drought, we expand and grow and mortgage everything not nailed to the kitchen floor in the pursuit of more.
Which reminds me of an observation Sam Walker made the last time we spoke. “Enough is plenty.”