California: Running On Empty
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.
We suffer in California from a particular form of progressive immorality predicated on insular selfishness. The water supplies of Los Angeles and the Bay Area are still for a year longer in good shape, despite the four-year drought. Neither area is self-sufficient in water; their aquifers are marginal and only supply a fraction of their daily needs. Instead these megalopolises depend on intricate and expensive water transfer systems -- from Northern California, from the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and from the Colorado River -- that bring water and life to quite unnatural habitats and thereby allow a MGM or Facebook to thrive in an arid landscape that otherwise would not support such commerce and population. Without them, Atherton would look like Porterville.
Quiet engineers in the shadows make it all work; the loud activists in the media seek to make it unwind. These transfers have sterling legal authority and first claims on mountain and northern state water. If Latinos in Lemon Cove are going without household water, Pyramid Lake on I-5 or Crystal Springs Reservoir on 280 are still full to the brim.
Why then do those who have access to water delivered in a most unnatural way seek to curtail supplies to others? In a word, because they are either ignorant of where their own water comes from or they have not a shred of concern for others less blessed, or both. We will confirm this ethical schizophrenia should a fifth year of drought ensue. Then even the most sacrosanct rights of transferred water will not be sufficient to accommodate the San Francisco and Los Angeles basins. Mass panic and outrage will probably follow, and no one will care a bit about the delta smelt, or a few hundred salmon artificially planted into the San Joaquin River watershed, or a spotted toad that holds up construction of an urgently needed reservoir.
The greens who pontificate about the need to return the San Joaquin watershed to its 19th-century ecosystem will become pariahs. When the taps run dry in Hillsborough and Bel-Air, very powerful people will demand water for their desert environs, which will in fact begin to return to the deserts that they always were as the thin veneer of civilization is scraped away.
The pretensions and vanity of postmodern civilization will do no good. What value is the ubiquity of transgendered restrooms, when there is no water in the toilet or sink? Who needs a reservoir on the back nine, when there is no water for putting greens? Who cares whether plastic grocery bags are outlawed, when one cannot afford the tomatoes or peaches to put in a paper bag? What does it matter whether the homeless or ex-felons are ensured a job on the high-speed rail project, when there is no money or water to build it? Who cares about a new Apple watch, when he stinks to high heaven without a shower?
Let us face elemental reality. A 40-million person California is an iffy place. It is entirely dependent on a sophisticated, man-created infrastructure of dams, reservoirs, canals, pumps, freeways, rail lines, airports, and schools and universities. Given that the population continues to rise, and given that one in four Californians was not born in the United States and is often poor (California has the largest population in real and relative numbers below the poverty line; one sixth of the nation on welfare payments of some sort lives in California), there is no margin of safety. A drought is but a metaphor about the collapse of an entire way of living.
Years ago the state should have ensured that its north-south state and federal laterals -- I-5, the 99, and 101 -- were completely three-lane freeways, if road carnage and bottlenecks were to be averted. Years ago, we should have added 20 million acre-feet of reservoir storage as our forefathers warned. We should have not released a single gallon of water for theoretical fish restoration, unless the reservoirs had at least a five-year supply of water, insurance for a drought like the present catastrophe.
There should have been direct, non-stop freight rail lines from Oregon to San Diego, before we even dreamed of high-speed rail, whose engineering and operational requirements seem beyond the expertise of the present state. We should have not instituted any “-studies” courses in our state universities until entering students met all math and English requirements and passed an exit exam upon graduation. What good does it do to be politically sensitive when one cannot read or compute at a college level?
We should have either curbed immigration into the state, or ensured adequate affordable housing projects for those whom we welcomed in. Instead, we ignored immigration law and then adopted a “I got mine, Jack” attitude of selfishness, of forbidding new housing construction on the logic that the Silicon Valley grandee would rather have his landscaper live in a Winnebago parked behind a Redwood City cottage than in an affordable condo in the vast empty 280 corridor expanse.
If our biologists and environmentalist were honest folk, they would have said to the public, “Please do not come into California; we instead prefer to restore salmon in our rivers than to provide jobs and drinking water for you. We like looking at open spaces from our backyard decks, not at new housing tracts. And we like a state of the well-heeled in clean-fueled, gas-less Priuses, not the poor puttering around in smoggy used Crown Victorias. The more costly we make gasoline and electrical power, the less we will use of it -- even if that hurts you far more than it hurts us.”
But they were not especially veracious sorts, and so they went ahead to turn California into a state fit for 20 million, even as it grew to 40 million -- while doing their best to be shielded from the ramifications of their own ideologies. The logical result of the Bay Area grandee’s world view is East Porterville, not the Berkeley foothills. If those who run the state would just live where the poor do, we would have reservoirs galore, futuristic freeways, and affordable housing. If the children of the elite fought for a slot at Cal State Stanislaus rather than Stanford, California would be quite a different place.
If it does not rain or snow soon, we are going to see things unimaginable.