How we drained California dry

Not a year after my grandfather arrived, the raisin went bust. The Armenian and Japanese farmers had planted so many grapes to dry into raisins that Sun-Maid couldn’t sell half of them. Who would buy the other half became a question of such wonderful theater, tragic and comic, that even Fresno’s sage, William Saroyan, would weigh in. If we could only persuade every mother in China to put a single raisin in her pot of rice, we’d have the glut solved, he mused. 

Just as the bust hit, the great drought of the 1920s hit too, revealing the folly and greed of California agriculture. It wasn’t enough that the farmers had taken the five rivers. They were now using turbine pumps to seize the aquifer, the ancient lake beneath the valley. In a land of glut, they were planting hundreds of thousands more acres of crops. This bigger footprint wasn’t prime farmland but poor, salty dirt beyond rivers’ reach. As the drought worsened, the new farms were extracting so much water out of the ground that their pumps couldn’t reach any lower. Their crops were withering. 

A cry went out from the agrarians to the politicians: “Steal us a river.” They were eyeing the flood flows of the Sacramento River up north. If the plan sounded audacious, well, just such a theft had already been accomplished by the City of Los Angeles, reaching up and over the mountain to steal the Owens River.

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

This is how we’ve come to the point today, during the driest decade in state history, that valley farmers haven’t diminished their footprint to meet water’s scarcity but have added a half-­million more acres of permanent crops—more almonds, pistachios, mandarins. They’ve lowered their pumps by hundreds of feet to chase the dwindling aquifer even as it dwindles further, sucking so many millions of acre-feet of water out of the earth that the land is sinking. This subsidence is collapsing the canals and ditches, reducing the flow of the very aqueduct that we built to create the flow itself. 

How might a native account for such madness?  

No civilization had ever built a grander system to transport water. It sprawled farmland. It sprawled suburbia. It made rise three world-class cities, and an economy that would rank as the fifth largest in the world. But it 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. The next year, they produce 200 million acre-feet. The average year, 72.5 million acre-feet, is a lie we tell ourselves.

I am sitting on the porch of a century-old farmhouse, eating kebabs and pilaf with David “Mas” Masumoto. We’re looking out in near silence at his 80 acres of orchards and vineyards not far from the Kings River. His small work crew has gone home. His wife, Marcy, is doing volunteer work overseas, and their three dogs, all stinking, know no bounds. The whole place looks exhausted, like a farm where the farmer has died. But Mas, nearing 68, is as alive as ever. 

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