Overdeveloped land, subsidence, large populations: California’s water crisis

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Through fierce reporting and captivating prose, journalist Mark Arax paints a vivid and complex portrait of California and its water. Born into a family of farmers in Fresno, Arax has witnessed firsthand the cyclical nature of droughts and floods in the state. He delves into the history and future of agriculture and water in his 2019 book “The Dreamt Land.” Arax joins Evan Kleiman to talk about the lessons gleaned from the state’s fraught water history, and what they might mean for its present and future. 

KCRW: Can you describe this photo of geologist Joe Poland?

Mark Arax: “Joe is standing next to this telephone pole, and it climbs a good way up into the sky. And then he's got some markers there. And if you look up almost to the top of the telephone pole, it says the year 1925. And in the middle, it says 1955. And at the bottom, it says 1977, where he was standing at that time. That is the distance the land has sunk — the entirety of a telephone pole — in a half century.”

You write, “In California, drought isn't nature, drought is man.” Can you explain what you mean by that, as well as the cyclical pattern of droughts and floods in California?

“That is the whole ethos of the people who live here — that drought is something that can be manipulated. That it's not something that nature imposes upon us, but it's somehow our failing to be able to conquer nature. You can understand why we have that feeling, because we invented the greatest water moving hydraulic system in the history of man. So we thought we could conquer nature. And we did a pretty good job of it for 75 years. I mean, we built two, if not three, world-class cities, incredible farm belt, the most productive in the world, in the middle, with Silicon Valley on the other side of the hill. 

But the system is cracking. There are too many demands we're putting on it. This is the story. We just came out of a historic drought not that long ago. We find ourselves back in another one. And we find ourselves as discombobulated by this one as we were by the last one.”

Where are the majority of crops grown in the state, and where is the water for those crops sourced?

“We built the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project. We moved the flow of water from where the rain fell and the snow melt was to where it wasn't, where most of the people want to live. So you've got a spot on the map of California that [gets] 150 inches of rain a year, and another one that [gets] five inches of rain a year. 

And so that great aqueduct, that concrete river, moves the water 444 miles from the north water abundance through the Central Valley, the San Joaquin Valley, the farms that are in the middle, and then up and over the mountain to the faucets and swimming pools of Southern California. In the San Joaquin Valley, we're growing six million acres of irrigated crops.”

How long has the water been allocated on a federal and state level?

“The Central Valley project was born out of the historic drought of the 1920s. And so it was at that time that a push was made because the farms were drying up. We had already taken our backyard rivers, the San Joaquin, the Kings, the Kern, and diverted 90% of their flow to agriculture, and we wanted to grow more. 

So we took the example of LA, which had run out of its little puny LA River, and needed to steal from afar. So LA went 230 miles up and over a mountain to steal from Owens River, and we decided here that we needed to steal from the Sacramento River, which is the most abundant river in California. There were floods up there. So they agreed, ‘Okay, we'll give you some of our floodwaters.’ 

And that built the Central Valley Project that came out of drought. And then about 30 years later, the State Water Project was added to that. And that came out of flood. So there was some floods in Northern California, and it was decided that Northern California could give even more water through the delta to the middle of California and the southern part of California. So those two projects together, I call that ‘the system.’”

Born into a family of farmers in Fresno, California, journalist Mark Arax has witnessed firsthand the cyclical nature of droughts and floods in the state. He delves into the history and future of agriculture and water in “The Dreamt Land.” Photo courtesy of Knopf.

What is happening to residents in communities like Fairmead, California, where some farmers are able to dig deeper wells than their residential neighbors? And when the reliance on groundwater becomes pronounced during droughts, what happens to the land elevation? Talk about the difference between what man takes versus what nature makes.

“Fairmead and Tustin are these little spots in the middle of California, they were basically places [established by] African Americans leaving the South, who did not go to the big cities of the North. And when they came west, they didn’t want to go to Los Angeles or San Francisco. They wanted to keep their rural lifestyle. They wanted a new Promised Land, but it had to be rural. So they came to the middle of California. And they found themselves confronted by...Jim Crow. 

They were locked out of the city by racism, so the only place they had to go was into these alkaline, salty patches of the San Joaquin Valley where no one would farm. They built their shacks, and they had no running water. They had to fetch that water by milk cans and oil drums. And it took them 10 years to persuade the powers that be to fund water systems. The first time they built a well, it made a story in Time magazine in 1959. ‘Hallelujah!’ they all shouted as they took their first baths inside their homes. 

I found [those wells] 50 years later, drying up. Their wells could not compete with the wells of farmers, who were planting more and more acres of almonds and pistachios around them, and going deeper into the aquifer. And as the farmers went deeper, their wells started sucking air. And they were looking at the prospect of having to leave that place, because it had gone dry.”

Can that lost water ever be recovered?

“It’s very, very difficult. Once the land subsides and sinks, what happens is that the clay in that land ends up, as it dries up, drawing down, and it brings the earth with it. And so the aquifer and the elasticity in it collapses. And the water can never find that place again in there. 

Now, you can recharge whatever's left to the aquifer when you have flood years. But we haven't had many flood years. We just have a bunch of years of drought and we keep mining that water. The ethos of the Gold Rush is still with us. That model of extraction still defines California. But now we're getting a global climate change to hitch on the back of our own inherent volatile weather, and we're seeing havocs we've never seen before.”

Can you describe water banks and how public water becomes privatized in this state?

“Water banks are actually a good idea, because instead of building concrete dams up-river, dams that in years of scarce rain aren't filled up with any snowmelt, it's better to take the ground below and find these geological formations that allow you to park a bunch of water in the earth. In other words, the ground is porous, and you can take that floodwater, through canals and ditches, put it on there, it sinks in there, and then you can call upon it in drought years. 

The problem is that those systems have been privatized in a large way. They were actually funded by the state, but then taken over by some of the biggest farmers in California, which means the biggest farmers in America, which means the biggest farmers in the world. And so we're seeing the water being turned into a commodity, and never more so than in times of scarcity.”

Are private companies selling what was once public water back to state programs in wet years?

“That's happening. But what you're seeing is a farmer-to-farmer and farmer-to-suburbia transfer. For example, the Boswell family was chased out of Georgia, where they were cotton growers and plantation owners in the 1920s. They were chased out by the boll weevil. They decide to come west to the Tulare Lake Basin. The most dominant feature on the California map in Indigenous times was Tulare Lake. It was 880 square miles in the middle of California in the San Joaquin Valley. 

And as the genocide of the Indians took place, and we had the colonization by Mexico and then the seizure of California by America, the farmers started taking those rivers that were filling up that lake and diverting that flow. And so the lake slowly started drying up. But in 1920, the Boswells and some others arrived from the South. And they...drain the rest of the lake dry, took those river flows, and created this huge cotton patch. The Boswells became the biggest farmers in America. Their motto was, ‘As long as the whale never surfaces, it's never harpooned.’ So it was a culture of secrecy. They were not only tapping into the State Water Project when it was built, but they were going deeper into the earth to extract the groundwater. 

And now what they're doing today is selling their state water. But instead of reducing their footprint of cotton and tomatoes, what they're doing is selling their pumped groundwater to some of the biggest farmers in California who have gone dry. Such as the Resnicks, [billionaire] Stewart Resnick being one of them. He has over-developed his land. He has grown too many pistachios, too many almonds, too many mandarins on the land. How does he water it? These are huge investments. Do you just pull out the trees? 

So what he's doing is teaming up with the second biggest farmer and buying his water. And this is how these guys are doing this. It's kind of off the books. And what's happening is the Tulare Lake Basin and the town of Corcoran, which is in the middle of it, are sinking. It’s the worst subsidence in the world, all to send water to crops that are grown on ground that should never have been farmed.”

When you look ahead at California's future, what's the next chapter of the story?

“We have reinvented ourselves so much out here that we think we can reinvent ourselves out of anything. And I understand why we believe that, because we have. But we've got this global climate change hitching onto our own wild swings in weather. And we're seeing things we’ve never seen before. And so we can have a conversation now that is more honest, maybe than we ever had. Drought reveals all lies. The way we're growing is a lie. It cannot be sustained. And so this notion of NIMBYism is almost thrown out the door. We're not NIMBYs anymore. We're simply saying that climate change won't allow for the kind of extraction that we are addicted to. 

Since that system was put in place, California has gone from 13 million people to 40 million. We need to have a conversation about how much more we can grow. Can we keep growing out? Do we finally need to grow up, double entendre intended? Yes, I get a little preachy, okay. I understand that a little bit soap box. But I wrote that book and came to all this history to bear on it...and I'm watching the same story play out five years later. I'm seeing these journalists parachute in from the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal in The Guardian, and they're writing the exact same stories they wrote five years ago. And they're really not getting at the fact that we have put ourselves in the path of this. 

It's not just nature forcing this on us. We have become connivers with nature. There was no lesson from the last drought. The only lesson was to grow more. We have added tens of thousands of acres of new fruit and nut trees in the Central Valley since the last drought. We have this collective amnesia. In a way, it's been a gift. Look at the 1861-1862 flood, probably the most devastating disaster to ever come to California. And yet, even as the land was just starting to dry up, they were building more in that floodplain. And so there's something about the spirit of Californians that is to be admired. But at some point, that stubbornness, that resistance, becomes a curse.”



Evan Kleiman