Work and Days

The Drought: California Apocalypto


Gov. Jerry Brown, center, answers a question concerning the executive order he signed requiring the state water board to implement measures in cities and towns to cut water usage by 25 percent compared with 2013 levels, at Echo Summit, Calif., Wednesday, April 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

The proverbial thin veneer of civilization has never been thinner in California, as if nature has conspired to create even greater chaos than what man here has already wrought. What follows below was a fairly typical seven-day period in the land of the highest sales, fuel, and income taxes that have led to the nearly worst freeways, schools, and general infrastructure in the nation.

I recently came home from an out-of-state trip. Something was wrong: I noticed off in the distance a strange geyser at the top of the hill. Vandals had apparently earlier taken sledgehammers to the pump’s four-inch plastic fittings — all to scavenge two brass valves (recycle value of about $20).

The fools did not know the pump was even on. When they smashed open the plastic pipes the spurting water apparently drenched them, and so they left their self-created mess. (No, criminals here do not know how to turn off a pump.) The ensuing deluge of several hours had ripped a three-foot-deep gully for about 20 yards.

I’ve lost count of how many pumps have been vandalized over the last decade. Some people play golf after work and weekends, but out here the pastime is to drive out to the countryside to wreck things for a few dollars of copper and bronze. It reminds me of the Ottomans in Greece, who pried off the lead seals over the iron clamps that had held together the marble blocks of ancient Greek temples and walls. The Turks, who could make little but scavenge a lot, got their few ounces of lead for bullets. In the exchange, the exposed iron marble clamps rusted and fell apart, ruining the antiquities that had theretofore survived 2,000 years of natural wear and tear. One civilization builds and invests, quite a different one destroys and consumes.

Four days earlier, three people (a male and two females) had parked nearby at the neighbor’s abandoned house. It was said not to meet California’s codes and thus was condemned, though the dwelling is far better built than are the occupied shacks and trailers across the street with various goats, chickens, geese, sheep, and cows grazing between the houses. In any case, the vandals were kicking in the sheet rock to rip out Romex wire (perhaps $5 worth of recyclable wire per ruined wall). I tried to catch them, but by the time I got to the truck and drove back out after them, they were speeding out of the alleyways with impunity.

When these things happen, no one calls the sheriff, the insurance company, or any authority. The problem is so ubiquitous, and the old civilized infrastructure so ossified, that it is impossible to address the vandalism and chronic violation of civilization’s basic tenets.

I think that we’ve come full circle in California: from the premodern Wild West of the 19th century to a decadent postmodernism that is every bit as feral, though the roughness of ascension is always preferable to its counterpart in decline. The day before Easter, Sacramento tried to stage the world’s largest public Easter egg hunt. From news reports it seems quickly to have devolved into a Darwinian free-for-all, where the ochlos swarmed the few who played by the rules.

After shutting the pump off, I drove back into the yard. That night the most miserable canine creature imaginable limped into the yard — a beaten bloody female dog dumped on the road.

This is a common occurrence in rural California: when dogs go into heat or become too expensive to feed or can no longer perform in backyard dog-fights, their peeved owners drive out of town, pull up to a rural house, and toss the dog out the car window.

We cleaned the creature up, and are trying to nurse it back to life to join our other dogs — who themselves were once throwaways.

After fixing the broken pipes, the pump ironically went dry the next day.

The well is a respectable 245 feet, but the submersible pump is set at 80 feet. The water table has fallen from 52 to 79 feet in a year, as the absence of surface water for four years has forced everyone to pump 24/7 to keep orchards and vineyards alive. (In the past, we’ve gone 10 years in a row without turning on a pump, given the irrigation district’s normal deliveries out of Pine Flat Reservoir — in the age before fish and scenic river restoration.) Water is taken out of the ground, but none is percolating back down. We forget that the logic of the Sierra snow runoff was to fill valley ponds and canals, whose storage water trickled down and replenished the aquifer, which farmers rarely had a need to tap through pumping.

I am on a list to have the dry agricultural pump lowered to 130 feet. Right now, there is a scramble for pump installers and well drillers. Daily, homes and farms go dry as the aquifer plunges. A paradox emerges in Central and Southern California: unlike the foothills, the Sierra, the coastal corridor, the West Side, and the Coast Range, there is a vast aquifer beneath the San Joaquin Valley, at least for about 10 miles on either side of the 99 freeway. The railroad men of the 19th century whose rails the freeway follows knew where water for their steam engines was plentiful.

For the near future, the problem is not running out of water per se, but rather the wild sauve-qui-peut mentality of deeper wells, bigger pumps, and larger power bills, and who can get an overbooked well driller or pump installer first. But then the current water chaos is not so different from driving the State 99 or trying to visit the DMV.

On the evening news, the governor announced a 25% reduction in state water usage. A wise move — but still at this late date, mostly a symbolic gesture after a half-century of state madness that saw (1) the state’s population soar from 20 to 40 million people, (2) the envisioned second- and third-phase reservoirs of various California water projects all cancelled, (3) and several million acre feet of stored water before and during the drought released from reservoirs to the ocean for fish and scenic river restoration.

Given that the agricultural pump had gone out, I also checked the house well and pump (it’s one thing to lose a grape crop, quite another to have no drinking water). It was a good thing. The much smaller pump was drawing on only 5 feet of water; so I had it lowered another 20 feet to near the bottom of the well. When the final 20 feet margin of error goes, that domestic well is kaput. But even a small new well for a house requires $30,000, with a six-month to one-year waiting list.

I had thought I would call my son, a history teacher and coach at a local rural school, to have him help me check the wells and to fix the broken fittings on the pump. But he lives in California, too. So, of course, he has his own disasters. An hour before I called, his car was vandalized and window smashed, with the loss of computer, keys, and wallet in broad daylight, the day before Easter in a north Clovis shopping center. He cancelled his credit cards within an hour; too late, the thieves had already used it at a Jack in the Box and gas station.

Do we look for guidance for all this chaos from our governor? The Legislature? The clergy? The UC or CSU campus hierarchy?

I doubt it. Students at UC Berkeley are talking about creating racially segregated “safe spaces.” The second in command at the Fresno Police Department was just arrested for drug trafficking (a $180,000 salary I guess is far too little compensation). And the L.A. mass transit train just had another human-induced collision (where are we going to find enough educated workers to pilot the zooming high-speed rail cars?).

At least the governor recently weighed in on illegal immigration to suggest that those who wanted existing federal immigration laws enforced were “un-Christian” (the governor is now, in Jimmy Swaggart style, habitually deriding those who do not share his ideology as un-Christian).

In the drought finger-pointing, it is now de rigeur to damn “Big Ag,” and to decry the use of water for things like almond trees. But why are almonds less important to our collective lives than are iPhones? Can you eat an app? Drink a search engine?

If one massages statistics and lumps environmental and recreational use of state and federal reservoir water under “agricultural use,” one then can claim that only 4 to 8% of state GNP is generated by agriculture and does not warrant “75%” of our water usage.

But where does “Big Facebook” get its water — if not from far distant water projects? Which is more unnatural, to farm corporate almonds outside of Tranquility where the water table is at 1,000 feet, or to cram millions of people into the arid Bay Area corridor where there is no aquifer to speak of, and thus water must be transferred from the north and east over vast distances to ensure the viability of Big Apple and Big Google?

At least the former elite in farming understand that they must build and maintain reservoirs and that bait fish are more expendable than is food, while the latter elite in theory object to the very infrastructure that in the concrete allows them to live in a most unnatural landscape.

Does anyone realize that the entire California experiment — having 75% of the people live in a Mediterranean climate where 25% of the state’s rain and snow fall — is unnatural and depends on each generation’s ingenuity and industriousness to ensure water, an educated populace, safe freeways, and basic safety and security for the citizenry?

The enervated middle class of California struggles under high taxes, high housing costs, high-cost energy, terrible schools, and high crime. Increasingly it is considering leaving paradise. In our pyramidal state, there is a vast underclass (22% of the state lives below the poverty line, schools are rated 46th in the nation, and one out of three hospital admittances over 35 suffers from diabetes, etc., a disease for whose prevention California rates near last in expenditures). The base of the pyramid is growing, and now represents one in six of all American welfare recipients.

Atop sits the wealthiest 1% elite in the United States, whose capital ensures immunity from the consequences of one’s own ideology — at least up to a point.

After all, Redwood City and East Palo Alto are apparently seen as forcing wealthy white and Asian liberals into private academies in Silicon Valley. Even those who demand higher taxes tend to relocate one “permanent” residence in nearby tax-free Nevada — a potentially disastrous trend, given than only about 160,000 Californians of 40 million residents account for 54% of all state income tax revenue.

Even those in Malibu, Bel Air, and Old Pasadena must use the unusable 405. Even Hetch Hetchy and other water projects cannot supply the Bay Area’s voracious appetite for water.  Putting phase one of high-speed rail down among the yokels of Central California does no good unless it is linked up with a messy, smelly, dirty construction site in the Bay Area.

What nature’s deadly four-year drought is teaching California is that even the liberal aristocracy eventually has a rendezvous with what they created.

All the capital, income, and influence in the state cannot guarantee exemption from their own self-induced chaos. Climbing atop the smokestacks of the sinking Titanic is of little use after you have deprecated the idea of more lifeboats.