How we drained California dry

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Not a yr after my grandfather arrived, the raisin went bust. The Armenian and Japanese farmers had planted so many grapes to dry into raisins that Solar-Maid couldn’t promote half of them. Who would purchase the opposite half grew to become a query of such fantastic theater, tragic and comedian, that even Fresno’s sage, William Saroyan, would weigh in. If we might solely persuade each mom in China to place a single raisin in her pot of rice, we’d have the glut solved, he mused. 

Simply because the bust hit, the good drought of the Twenties hit too, revealing the folly and greed of California agriculture. It wasn’t sufficient that the farmers had taken the 5 rivers. They had been now utilizing turbine pumps to grab the aquifer, the traditional lake beneath the valley. In a land of glut, they had been planting a whole lot of 1000’s extra acres of crops. This greater footprint wasn’t prime farmland however poor, salty grime past rivers’ attain. Because the drought worsened, the brand new farms had been extracting a lot water out of the bottom that their pumps couldn’t attain any decrease. Their crops had been withering. 

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

That is how the federal authorities, within the Forties, got here to construct the Central Valley Venture, damming the rivers and putting in mammoth pumps within the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta to maneuver water to the dying farms within the center. That is how the state of California, within the Sixties, constructed the State Water Venture, putting in extra pumps within the delta and a 444-mile-long aqueduct to maneuver extra water to develop extra farms within the center and extra homes and swimming swimming pools in Southern California. 

That is how we’ve come to the purpose as we speak, in the course of the driest decade in state historical past, that valley farmers haven’t diminished their footprint to satisfy water’s shortage however have added a half-­million extra acres of everlasting crops—extra almonds, pistachios, mandarins. They’ve lowered their pumps by a whole lot of ft to chase the dwindling aquifer even because it dwindles additional, sucking so many hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water out of the earth that the land is sinking. This subsidence is collapsing the canals and ditches, lowering the move of the very aqueduct that we constructed to create the move itself. 

How may a local account for such insanity?  

No civilization had ever constructed a grander system to move water. It sprawled farmland. It sprawled suburbia. It made rise three world-class cities, and an financial system that will rank because the fifth largest on the planet. But it surely didn’t change the important nature of California. Drought is California. Flood is California. One yr our rivers and streams produce 30 million acre-feet of water. The following yr, they produce 200 million acre-feet. The typical yr, 72.5 million acre-feet, is a lie we inform ourselves.

I’m sitting on the porch of a century-old farmhouse, consuming kebabs and pilaf with David “Mas” Masumoto. We’re looking in close to silence at his 80 acres of orchards and vineyards not removed from the Kings River. His small work crew has gone residence. His spouse, Marcy, is doing volunteer work abroad, and their three canines, all stinking, know no bounds. The entire place appears exhausted, like a farm the place the farmer has died. However Mas, nearing 68, is as alive as ever. 

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