California’s Hydromania

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Two events now characterize the California agrarian heartland, the richest and most productive farm belt in the world.

One, of course, is the third year of drought. I refer here to nature’s lack of rain and snow. But also factor in the state’s additional man-made drought, through diversions of precious stored reservoir water from agriculture and community use to environmental causes that demand more river water must flow out to the sea.

The state’s environmental fanatics over thirty years ago cancelled the critical tertiary phases of the California Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project. I guess those in the Bay Area whose lives rest on Hetch Hetchy delivered reservoir water deemed reservoirs for all others passé and so 19th century.

The result is that a brilliantly engineered water transfer system -- 80% of Californians live where 20% of the state’s rain and snow fall -- designed to incrementally expand as population grew, became frozen in amber. We had a wonderful water storage system for 23 million people in 1980. But it proved completely inadequate for the 40 million plus of 2014, who assumed household and drinking water, irrigation supplies, and clean hydroelectric power came out of thin air.

The other facet of this disaster is a surreal, counterintuitive mad land rush in the Central Valley. The focus is on any farmland in a strip from the Sierra foothills to five miles west of the 99 Highway. Open land that just five years ago went for $5,000 to $6,000 per acre is now selling at $20,000 and more. Nut orchards and prime vineyard land that were priced at $15,000 in 2009 now are haggled over at $30,000 to $40,000. The price seems to escalate monthly in direct proportion to the fall of the water table.

Why exactly is farmland so insanely priced, when canal water is nonexistent and the water table is dropping several feet each month -- as tens of thousands of farmers tap their savings to deepen their wells to grab what they can of the shrinking aquifer?

The answer is complex. One, the growth of India, China, Southeast Asia and the Pacific as consumers of California specialty crops coincides with steady inflation here at home in the price of food. In such a perfect storm, farming has never been more lucrative. It is almost as if the more regulations, taxes, and rules that are put on farming, the more food becomes precious.

Prices to almond growers have reached $3 and more a pound. Some mature nut varieties  bring $8,000 to $10,000 in profits per acre. As farmers swarm to plant crops like almonds or pistachios, they abandon old marginally profitable produce like grapes and stone fruit -- and such reductions in those acreages have likewise revitalized the fresh and dried fruit markets. In a word, price-wise everything in California is now good, and water-wise everything is lousy -- with one weird caveat. Let me elaborate a bit more on the underground contours that frame the reaction to the drought.

The old hydrologists and geologists warned us that annual snowmelts run off the Sierra granite, on past the clay foothill soil, and seep into a huge sandy loam aquifer from about ten miles to forty miles distant. But quite precipitously that aquifer plunges as one heads each mile westward to the Coast Range, so much so that out by Highway 33 to I-5, it is not uncommon to hunt for brackish water at 1500 feet and more.

In other words, without the water projects’ deliveries of surface irrigation water from Northern California, the multibillion-dollar vast West Side -- excellent soils, brilliantly engineered canal systems, a font of agribusiness genius -- is threatened with abject extinction. I grew up hunting with my father out on the pre-water project “West Side.” shooting jack rabbits and ground squirrels among the parched salt flats, tumbleweeds, and brambles that offered marginal cattle raising lands at best.

If we cut the surface water to the West Side or simply don’t have it, the verdant bread basket of the nation returns to desert -- and with it are lost billions of dollars in export earnings, thousands of jobs, tens of billions in spin-off economic commerce, and assurances of affordable food, from cotton and lettuce to pistachios and tomatoes.

As millions of these acres remain threatened, a desperate agribusiness looks eastward, to the well-watered loams far closer to the Sierra. Here, in towns like Reedley, Selma, Fowler, Fresno and Madera, the aquifer is, for a while longer, close to the surface. It has been replenished by snow runoff for centuries, and canal water recharge ponds for over 100 years.

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.

A final reflection: The last thirty years saw the final destruction of the long-ailing California family farmer and his parochial world of agrarianism. The family farm was not a business, but a proverbial way of life that revolved around seasonal rhythms, local rural get-togethers, and a shame culture where farmers sought to raise kids that would not embarrass a 100-year family reputation. All that is over here, as their small tesserae are now recombined into larger mosaics of corporate farms. Economy of scale, mechanization, and efficiency leave no room for quaint ideas of raising kids to learn the value of hard, monotonous work, or to neither romanticize nor harm nature, or to remember to treat the rich and poor man the same, or to remember to match your lofty words with mundane deeds of living what you profess.

As I see the well rigs fly by, the for-sale signs spring up, and the investors scour the countryside, I think of all these small farms whose owners are now dead, whose children long ago moved away with the bad prices, and the now rougher rural communities (illegal immigration, meth labs, and the destruction of manufacturing jobs were not kind to rural California).

In this season of drought, when I see these old vineyards bulldozed out, their clapboard homes obliterated, the once uneven land reformed -- as the land produces as never before -- I think of their ghosts still. They were the Hazelhoffers,  Garabedians, and the Yamamotos and thousands like them, the moral universe of rough but good men and their axioms of “Treat me fair, and I’ll do the same,” “He kept his word,”  “The Smith kid was spoiled and no damn good,” and “Remember who you are and where you came from.”

Ave atque vale

vdh_grandfather_4-20-14-1 Frank Hanson, my grandfather, riding Paint, his horse, in Kingsburg, California, in 1959.