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How we drained dry California


A year after my grandfather arrived, the raisin went bankrupt. Armenian and Japanese farmers had grown so many grapes to dry them into raisins that Sun-Maid could not sell half of them. Who will buy the other half has become a matter of great theatrical, tragic and comedic, that even Fresno sage, William Saroyan, may weigh upon us. If we could just convince every mother in China to put one raisin in her rice pot, he would have thought we would solve the glut.

Once the bust hit, the Great Drought of the 1920s struck as well, revealing the folly and greed of California farming. It was not enough for cultivators to take the Five Rivers. They were now using turbine pumps to seize the aquifer, the ancient lake under the valley. In surplus land, they would grow hundreds of thousands of acres of crops. This larger footprint was not major farmland, but poor, salty land beyond the reach of rivers. As the drought worsened, the new farms were extracting so much water from the land that their pumps couldn’t reach a lower level. Their crops were withering.

From the farmers to the politicians there was a cry: “Steal us a river.” They were looking forward to the flood flow of the Sacramento River in the north. If the plan seems audacious, well, such a robbery was actually carried out by the city of Los Angeles, reaching up the mountain to rob the Owens River.

This is how the federal government came in in the 1940s to build the Central Valley Project, damming rivers and installing huge pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta to bring water to dying farms in the middle. This is how, in the 1960s, California built the State Water Project, installing more pumps in the delta and a 444-mile canal to move more water to grow more farms in the middle and more homes and pools in Southern California.

That’s how we got to the point where we are today, during the driest decade in the state’s history, that valley farmers not only reduced their footprints to cope with water scarcity but added an additional half a million acres of perennial crops — more almonds, pistachios, and tangerines. They lowered their pumps by hundreds of feet to chase the dwindling aquifer even as it dwindled further, sucking millions of acres of water out of the ground to the point that the ground is sinking. This subsidence causes canals and trenches to collapse, reducing the flow of the channel we built to create the flow itself.

So how can an original account for such madness?

No civilization has ever built a greater system for transporting water. Agricultural land stretched. outskirts stretched. It made three world-class cities, and an economy that would rank fifth in the world. But it did not change the fundamental nature of California. Drought is California. The flood is ca. One year our rivers and streams produce 30 million acres of water. The following year, they produce 200 million acres. Average year, 72.5 million acres, 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 almost silently at the 80 acres of orchards and vineyards not far from the Kings River. His little crew is back home. His wife, Marcy, does volunteer work outside, and their three dogs, all smelly, know no bounds. The whole place looks exhausted, like a farm where the farmer died. But Maas, who is approaching the age of 68, is as alive as ever.

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