California: Running On Empty

California Drought-Salmon In this June 3, 2015 photo provided by the California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, juvenile coho salmon, or fry, rescued from Green Valley Creek, a tributary of the Russian River, wait in a container to be relocated to suitable habitat in Santa Rosa, Calif. State water regulators want vineyards in Northern California’s Wine Country to start reporting how much groundwater they are pumping up, saying excessive withdrawals to irrigate grapes are draining creeks that host an endangered population of coho salmon. (Eric Larson/California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife via AP)

The air in the San Joaquin Valley this late-June is, of course, hot and dry, but also dustier and more full of particulates than usual. This year a strange flu reached epidemic proportions. I say strange, because after the initial viral symptoms subsided, one’s cough still lingered for weeks and even months. Antibiotics did not seem to faze it. Allergy clinics were full. Almost every valley resident notices that when orchards and vineyards are less watered, when row cropland lies fallow, when lawns die and blow away, when highway landscaping dries up, nature takes over and the air becomes even filthier. Green elites lecture that agriculture is unnatural, without any idea why pre-civilized, pre-irrigated, and “natural” California was an empty place, whose dry, hazy climate and dusty winds made life almost impossible. The state is running on empty.

Domestic and agricultural wells are going dry all over Central California, especially in the corridors south of Fresno to the Grapevine, along the Sierra Nevada foothills, and out west of the 99 Freeway -- anywhere there is not a deep aquifer. I have never seen anything quite like this water madness in 60 years, as families scrimp and borrow to drill, or simply move to town to take advantage of municipal wells. I have developed a habit as I drive to work to Stanford of counting the abandoned homes I see west of Highway 41 (sort of like counting those who sit in Wal-Mart not to shop, but to enjoy the air conditioning they cannot afford).  The number increases each week.  Retired couples -- or families in general -- apparently do not have tens of thousands of dollars to drill a deeper well, especially given the uncertainty of how fast the dropping water table will soon make their investment superfluous. Without water, there is nothing.

Some dry farmland is turning into vacant parcels. Many rural homes must have potable water trucked in. Hispanics who recently immigrated to California and bought or rented older homes with shallow wells in these areas of the valley countryside have no money to drill deeper $30,000 domestic wells. Nor do many poor whites, who often live in isolated communities in the foothills. Who has the capital to gamble on finding scarce water in dicey granite seams?  There is no water in the reservoirs left to recharge the water table or to fill canals that can be tapped for domestic use.

Along the vast West Side of the Central Valley thousands of acres lie fallow -- a euphemism that does not reflect the dust that arises from neglected fields. Thousands of acres of West Side nut orchards seem like they are beginning to wither, as insufficient and brackish water from 1,000-foot wells after four years has fatally taxed the trees. The idea that in such crisis times of the last four years anyone would have released millions of acre-feet of precious stored fresh water to the ocean is profoundly immoral. The thought that anyone would oppose the creation of more reservoirs to accommodate a thirsty state population of 40 million is morally bankrupt.