Reviewed in the United States on December 5, 2019
“A farmer looking to turn open ground into (almond) orchard (by drilling wells) needn’t fret that the government will say no, because no agency regulates such things. Not even when the water the farmer pulls from the ground is draining his neighbors dry. The spoils here go to the one with the deepest hole, the highest horsepower (of pump).” – from THE DREAMT LAND
“The lesson of dry times was (and is) the opposite of what a rational observer might expect. Rather than keep their acreage within a comfortable range of their water, farmers were (and are) planting to the absolute extreme of what the water could (and can) serve. Time and time again, their calculations had forgotten that drought was (and is) a reality of the land.” – from THE DREAMT LAND
“… Westlands (Water District) farmers are pumping degraded groundwater from their own aquifers and dumping it into the California Aqueduct. The credits they receive from the federal government for this tainted water then enables them to pull out an equal amount of cleaner water from a different section of the aqueduct. The credits are encouraging growers to deplete the aquifer and create more subsidence, but that’s not the worst of it. By offering the aqueduct as a drain, state and federal regulators are allowing groundwater laced with arsenic, boron and selenium to contaminate drinking water. The pollutants flow down the aqueduct and wind up in Southern California, where most residents have no knowledge of the dumping, even though their monthly water bills reflect the increasing cost of treatment. The local agency that should be watching out for their interests, the Metropolitan Water District, has yet to tell Westlands … to knock it off.” – from THE DREAMT LAND
California’s Central Valley is perhaps the most blessed place on Earth for agriculture. To the east, the snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada range feeds a multitude of rivers that flow west into the valley including the Merced, Tule, Kaweah, Kern, San Joaquin, Kings, Stanislaus, American, Tuolumne, Mokelumne, Chowchilla, Calaveras, Clavey, and Feather rivers. That same snowmelt feeds, to its east, the Owens River in the Owens Valley. At the Central Valley’s north end, the snowmelt off Mount Shasta feeds the greatest of the state’s rivers, the Sacramento, which flows south.
After eight to nine years of research, investigative journalist Mark Arax, himself having come from a Central Valley family of fig and pomegranate growers, has written THE DREAMT LAND, a scathing indictment of past and continuing mismanagement of California’s water resources by individuals with the power, agenda and, yes, greed to do so over the decades that started with relatively straightforward canalization and progressed to the federal Central Valley Project and the California State Water Project in the Central Valley and the Los Angeles Aqueduct in the Owens Valley.
The amount of information presented in the author’s report is prodigious. Unfortunately, in my opinion, his way of presenting it makes for unwieldy handling in the mind of the reader. Appropriately enough, he presents the overall subject from the geographic perspectives of the various parts of the Central Valley: north, south, east, west and center. Then he starts to complicate things by discussing the subject in the frameworks of the many of those regions’ riches exploited or manipulated via the use of precious water: gold (during the Gold Rush), wheat, cotton, pistachios, almonds, pomegranates, citrus (especially mandarin oranges), grapes, and bass and the Delta smelt. Then, he caps the complexity by introducing into the narrative the activities of too many specific individuals and families who’ve influenced or been responsible for the (mis)management of water resources, especially ground water in the aquifers. Sometimes, less is more; the text needed a good editor and the overall topic not micro-presented.
Almost as an aside, Arax tells the story of the confiscation of Owens Valley water for the burgeoning needs of a rapacious Los Angeles.
What the reader is likely to take away from THE DREAMT LAND is the danger to the Central Valley’s aquifers, which are steadily being drawn down by agribusinesses, especially the nut growers that’ve expanded their orchards well beyond the capability of the aquifers to provide water in times of drought. And, as the aquifers are depleted, the land above them subsides causing damage to the infrastructure of roads, bridges, and the California Aqueduct and canals themselves. It’s a train wreck in slow motion.
It almost goes without saying that the author is sharply disapproving of the state’s self-imposed water debacle. However, at no point does he suggest how the evolution of the situation could’ve been handled differently for a better outcome though he does, in fairness, suggest at the book’s end several steps that could be taken to fend off the pending disaster. Along the way, Arax intimates that Nature itself will supply its own solution of a sort that establishes a new water availability/use equilibrium which, while returning much of the land to a dusty perpetual fallowness, will at least ensure adequate water availability going forward for the farmed acres left in use. Perhaps this equilibrium will involve a conversion of farmland to residential suburbia, the latter using, by definition, less water than the former.
It’s perhaps difficult to imagine how profit-driven Human Nature, in the face of such potential mineral and agricultural riches, might’ve proceeded to a less unfavorable consequence. The author himself has no qualms against naming names; the apparent chief villains of his piece are Stewart and Lynda Resnick, owners of The Wonderful Company, which produces (among other things) Wonderful Almonds, Wonderful Pistachios, and POM Wonderful. Happily, because I don’t buy and consume any of those three products, I have plausible deniability when it comes to contributing to Wonderful’s groundwater depredations when growing those two nuts and pomegranates.
THE DREAMT LAND is sprinkled with nice-to-see but essentially unnecessary photos. What the book doesn’t include are the more indispensable maps showing how the Central Valley Project and the California State Water Project have captured, diverted, and sometimes completely reversed natural water flow in the various rivers.
I’m glad I read THE DREAMT LAND, but only wish it could’ve been more concisely written.
Perhaps the reader is best left with the following two excerpts from the book:
“The north shouts water grab, the middle shouts we’re feeding the world and the south shouts the greatness of its city.”
“… let each tribe preach its sermon, creed and rant to its own, for no book, long or short, could ever hope to bring peace to California’s water wars.”