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California’s Hydromania

If there is a fourth year of drought, the West Side, as we have known it, is doomed, but not necessarily the East Side. To continue to garner record-high commodity prices -- which only soar further on fears of water shortages -- everyone seems to want part of the old agrarian mosaic here to the east, where the old homesteaded 40- and 80-acre plots sit atop good, relatively shallow water, even in these trying times of drought. (There were reasons why our ancestors settled where they did).

Even as a tiny farmer who now rents out his vineyard and works weekly on the coast, I have watched for three years this chaos with bewilderment. Everyone I know (myself included) is water-obsessed. We keep paying taxes to irrigation districts, but have not had a drop for three years. New wells are drilled constantly (the waiting list for drillers is long and the price has skyrocketed).

The hunt for water proves a vicious cycle: the pump sucks air from a dry well in a sinking water table, so the farmer pays thousands of dollars to deepen his well or drill a new one so that he can pay more for electricity for a bigger pump to draw less water from a lower level which only forces the collective water table even lower.

Magnify each farmer’s ordeal hundreds of thousands of times over, and just when you sense abject madness, stop!

For a year or more, all this money, time, and effort may well yet save an orchard or vineyard at a time of record prices. Men get mean over water, more so than over almost anything else I’ve seen. I witness and hear of lies and thieving, of the piratical and selfish, as farmers scramble to crowd to the head of the well-drilling list, or to cancel once iron-clad pump easements, or beg to share a neighbor’s well until they can drill a new one. It reminds me of my grandfather’s 19th-century stories of shoot-outs at local ditch gates.

Speculators, real estate agents, and fly-by-nighters circulate. They come with all sorts of buy-out offers, strange lease schemes, long-term preposterous visions of vast orchard developments -- all in a panic mode to find farmland with water.

Of course, give us a wet year with an extraordinary snowfall, and all this madness vanishes as life returns to normal. But that is no given. Now paranoia rules, and fears grow that there will be a fourth or fifth year of drought, or that the greens will end all surface delivery in their selfish desire to promote baitfish over people.