How we drained California dry

Not a year after my grandfather arrived, the raisin broke. The Armenian and Japanese farmers had planted so many grapes to dry for raisins that Sun-Maid could not sell half of them. Who would buy the other half became a matter of such wonderful theater, tragic and comic, that even Fresno’s sage, William Saroyan, would weigh in. If we could just persuade any mother in China to put a single raisin in her pot of rice, we would have the abundance loose, he pondered.

Just as the bust hit, the great drought of the 1920s also hit, revealing the folly and greed of Californian agriculture. It was not enough that the peasants had taken the five rivers. They now used turbine pumps to seize the groundwater reservoir, the old lake below the valley. In an abundant land, they planted hundreds of thousands of acres of crops. This larger footprint was not first-class agricultural land, but poor, salty dirt out of reach of rivers. As the drought worsened, the new farms picked up so much water from the ground that their pumps could not reach lower. Their crops were withering.

A shout was heard from the villagers to the politicians: “Steal us a river.” They watched the flooding of the Sacramento River to the north. If the plan sounded bold, well, then just such a theft had already been carried out by the city of Los Angeles reaching up and over the mountain to steal the Owens River.

That’s how the federal government in the 1940s came to build the Central Valley project, dam the rivers, and install mammoth pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to move water to the dying farms in the center. That’s how the state of California built the State Water Project in the 1960s, installing more pumps in the delta and a 444-mile-long aqueduct to move more water to grow more farms in the center and more houses and swimming pools in Southern California.

This is how we have come to the point today, during the driest decade in the history of the state, that valley farmers have not reduced their footprint to meet the scarcity of water, but have added half a million more hectares of permanent crops – more almonds , pistachios, tangerines. They have lowered their pumps by hundreds of feet to chase the dwindling reservoir, even as it shrinks further, sucking so many millions of acres of water out of the ground that the land sinks. This subsidence collapses the canals and ditches and reduces the flow of the aqueduct itself, which we built to create the flow itself.

How can a native account for such madness?

No civilization had ever built a larger system to transport water. It scattered agricultural land. It scattered suburbs. It created three world-class cities, and an economy that would rank as the fifth largest in the world. But that did not change the essential nature of California. Drought is California. Flood is California. One year, our rivers and streams produce 30 million acre-feet of water. Next year, they will produce 200 million acre-feet. The average year, 72.5 million acre-feet, is a lie we tell ourselves.

I sit on the porch of a century-old farmhouse eating kebabs and pilaf with David “Mas” Masumoto. We look in almost silence at his 80 acres of orchards and vineyards not far from the Kings River. His small work team has traveled home. His wife, Marcy, does volunteer work abroad, and their three dogs, who all stink, know no bounds. The whole place looks exhausted, like a farm where the farmer is dead. But Mas, approaching 68, is as alive as ever.


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