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My mother grew up on a tiny farm on the outskirts of Bakersfield in the 1960s. When I was little, she told me stories about the Basques who sheared their sheep, and a childhood spent wandering among the family’s fruit and nut trees.

It was a bucolic picture of California’s Central Valley—the type of picturesque image that journalist Mark Arax, in his sprawling new treatise on water and agriculture in the Golden State, is quick to undermine: Today, small family farms are vanishing; agribusiness is expanding; the earth is sinking; aquifers are emptying; rivers run dry; and laborers toil for a pittance.

In The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California, Arax roams the state and plumbs its history to reveal the causes and consequences of the current water crisis. He reports on farms and the pipelines that supply them, interviewing fieldworkers and billionaire landowners, and interjecting tales of his family’s own agricultural forays and failures. His scope is impressive: He describes the cultivation of specialized grapes with the same clarity and finesse with which he unravels the state’s great mass of dams, aqueducts and complicated water rights. The result clearly depicts “the grandest hydraulic engineering feat known to man”—“one of the most dramatic alterations of the earth’s surface in human history.”

This engineering feat is at the center of the book’s most-urgent questions. Despite recurring drought and a rapidly changing climate, the Central Valley produces another bountiful harvest each year. “How much was magic? How much was plunder?” Arax asks. The region accounts for more than a third of the country’s vegetables, and over two-thirds of our nuts and fruit; it boasts a million acres of almonds alone. Stewart Resnick of The Wonderful Company, the biggest grower of them all, shuttles 400,000 acre-feet of water per year to his 15 million trees, mostly growing almonds, pistachios, pomegranates and citrus. (The city of Los Angeles, for perspective, consumes 587,000 acre-feet annually.)

The bounty is largely plunder, of course, not magic. The plunder is as embedded in the state as the dream that made it possible. Arax traces this history from the Spanish colonial subjugation of Indigenous peoples to the conquering of the territory by U.S. forces, to the excavation of mountains for gold, to Los Angeles’ theft of the Owens River, to urban sprawl and suburban tracts—an unending cycle of supply and demand. Restraint was never an option. “No society in history has gone to greater lengths to deny its fundamental nature than California,” he writes. “California, for a century and two-thirds now, keeps forgetting its arrangement with drought and flood.”

Time and again in The Dreamt Land, we watch farmers ignore the certainty of drought, planting “to the absolute extreme of what the water could serve.” When farms in Tulare and Kern counties exhausted their local rivers, they drained the San Joaquin, which also proved insufficient. Such excessive planting and pumping, paired with the natural pendulum of flood and drought, perpetuated the fast disappearance of water. This “gave rise to both the need and ambition of a system”: the immense Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, which mine Northern California’s rivers and redistribute water to the Central Valley and the urban centers of the south.

Both projects were largely constructed between the late 1930s and early 1970s, designed to allow farmers to grow in both wet and dry years. But “the System,” as Arax methodically shows, was based on the flawed, idealized theory of an average year of weather; it presumed to deliver a constant, predictable supply, as if wild variations in precipitation did not exist or could be evened out by mathematics.

In reality, “the actual water captured and delivered (by the System) fell short of the normal or far beyond it.” When it fell short, which happened frequently, farmers were forced to confront the nearly 2 million-acre-foot difference. When the floods arrived, they again forgot the dry years and sowed new fields. Cities did the same—and boomed. Then true drought set in, as it always does, and everyone scrambled to survive: The cities grabbed from the System; the government supplied subsidies to farmers; some farmers dug new wells and watched the ground sink beneath them; still others fallowed their land and sold their water to the highest bidder. As climate change accelerates, the cycles of drought and flood and the severity of their effects have only been exacerbated.

These are the stories of a people who refuse to face the limits of their landscape, whose attempts at control end up dirtying their own beds, and whose production, for now, is remarkably inflated: “Highest mountain, lowest desert, longest coast, most epic valley—(California) made for infinite invention.”

This multitude is both the source of the state’s bounty and the substance of its myth. The California Dream is the American Dream with a dash of rouge and citrus—just as tantalizing, just as exclusive.

Sean McCoy is a writer from Arizona and the editor of Contra Viento, a journal for art and literature from rangelands. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California

By Mark Arax

Knopf

576 pages, $30

Published in Literature

Proposition 1, the $7.5 billion water bond that 67 percent of California voters approved last week, will provide millions of dollars for projects everyone likes.

It sets aside funds to strip pollutants from valuable urban aquifers; it will bring in money to repair aging pipes that leach pollutants into drinking water. Locally, the Salton Sea could get part of the $500 million the measure authorizes for restoring damaged ecosystems.

So what about it makes many environmental groups so mad?

The Center for Biological Diversity, Food and Water Watch, and San Francisco Baykeeper all took an explicit stand against Proposition 1, as did virtually every fisherman’s advocacy group in the state. The Sierra Club, though it officially opposed the legislative bill that produced the ballot measure, remainedneutral in theory, but the group’s position statement announcing neutrality also used the word hate.

Chelsea Tu, staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, says the problem comes down to this: While the bond measure does indeed give a nod to higher environmental concerns, “those beneficial provisions are far outweighed by the $2.7 billion in the bill set aside for surface and groundwater storage provisions.”

In other words, the “public benefits” it funds could mean new dams: One would flood 14,000 acres in Colusa County north of Sacramento for the proposed Sites Reservoir; another would augment current San Joaquin River water storage at Temperance Flat. Prop 1 funds could also go toward adding 18.5 feet to Shasta Dam—a $1.1 billion project touted as a “bargain“ by Westlands Water District General Manager Tom Birmingham, but opposed by the Winnemem Wintu tribe, which was flooded out of sacred lands once when the dam was finished in 1945.

Proposition 1 does not explicitly state that any of the $2.7 billion will fund dam projects, however, and not every environmental group worries quite so much. “The era of big dams is over,” pronounced Doug Obegi, staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, on the organization’s blog. “The water bond does not earmark funding for Temperance Flat or any other surface storage project.” Dams cost too much money to make sense anymore; even with taxpayer subsidies, they “can’t compete economically with these regional and local water supply projects.”

Emphasizing that NRDC “strongly opposes” both Temperance Flat and a Shasta Dam raising, Obegi’s organization endorsed Prop 1.

Tu thinks that’s not only “optimistic,” but at odds with Gov. Jerry Brown’s oft-stated agenda.

“Every time the governor talks about the water crisis, he talks about building out water infrastructure projects that go back to the 1950s,” she says. “Those are projects that both state and federal legislatures have been pushing for many, many years.” They’re also projects that the state’s agricultural interests, which consume more than three-quarters of the state’s water, have lobbied hard for, along with a multibillion-dollar tunnel project that would suck water from the Sacramento River before it ever gets to the ailing California Delta. (Prop 1 was written to be “tunnel neutral.”)

Adam Scow, California campaigns director for Food and Water Watch, calls Prop. 1 “a bunch of mystery meat,” ominously geared toward finding more ways to deliver water to industrial agriculture. Even more alarming, he says, is that according to the provisions of the bill, the nine members of the California Water Commission have been tasked with allocating the meat. Those nine members have been appointed by “Big Agriculture’s closest ally,” Scow says. “A man named Jerry Brown.”

Scow thinks Proposition 1’s other benefits recede in light of that fact. Aquifer cleanup, water for fish, habitat restoration and drinking water for disadvantaged communities are all good, he says, and even necessary. They just don’t have to be yoked to what he calls “a bloated bond deal,” written with industrial agriculture in mind.

“We do need to address the inequities in water rights we have in this state,” Scow says. “We just don’t need a bond deal to do it.”

But that bond deal is exactly what Californians overwhelmingly approved on Election Day.

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor for High Country News, where this story first appeared.

Published in Environment