Less than a year after my grandfather’s arrival, the raisin broke. The Armenian and Japanese farmers had planted so many grapes to dry into raisins that Sun-Maid could not sell half of them. Who would buy the other half became a question of such a wonderful theater, tragic and funny, that even Fresno’s sage William Saroyan would have a say. If we could only get every mother in China to put a single raisin in their rice pot, we would have solved the oversupply, he reflected.
Like the bankruptcy, the great drought of the 1920s hit, exposing the folly and greed of California’s agriculture. It was not enough that the farmers had taken the five rivers. They were now using turbine pumps to grab the aquifer, the old lake below the valley. In a land of plenty, they planted hundreds of thousands more acres. That larger footprint was not prime farmland, but poor, salty dirt that was out of reach of rivers. As the drought worsened, the new farms raised so much water that their pumps couldn’t go deeper. Their crops withered.
There was a call from the farmers to the politicians: “Steal a river from us”. They watched the flood currents of the Sacramento River to the north. Though the plan sounded bold, well, one such theft had already been carried out by the city of Los Angeles, which had reached up the mountain and across the Owens River.
In this way, in the 1940s, the federal government built the Central Valley Project, dammed the rivers, and installed mammoth pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to carry water to the dying farms in the center. This is how the state of California built the State Water Project in the 1960s, installing more pumps in the delta and a 444 mile long aqueduct to move more water to grow more farms in the center and more homes and swimming pools in the center Southern California.
In this way, today, during the driest decade in the state’s history, we have come to the point that the valley farmers have not reduced their footprints to meet the water shortage, but have planted half a million hectares more permanent crops – more almonds, Pistachios, mandarins. They have lowered their pumps hundreds of feet to chase the dwindling aquifer as it continues to dwindle, sucking so many millions of acres of water from the earth that the land is sinking. This subsidence causes the canals and ditches to collapse and reduce the flow of the aqueduct we built to create the river itself.
How could a local be responsible for such madness?
No civilization had ever built a greater system for transporting water. It stretched over farmland. It spread to the suburbs. It gave birth to three world-class cities and an economy that would be considered the fifth largest in the world. But it didn’t change the essence of California. Drought is California. High tide is California. Our rivers and streams produce 30 million acre-feet of water a year. They’ll produce 200 million acre-feet the next year. The average year, 72.5 million acre-feet, is a lie we tell ourselves.
I sit on the veranda of a centuries-old farmhouse and eat kebab and pilaf with David “Mas” Masumoto. We look almost mute over its 80 acres of orchards and vineyards not far from the Kings River. His small work team went home. His wife Marcy volunteers overseas and their three smelly dogs know no borders. The whole place looks exhausted, like a farm where the farmer died. But Mas, approaching 68, is as alive as ever.