The Scorching of California

How Green extremists made a bad drought worse
Winter 2015


The drought has threatened to turn large tracts of farmland into dust.

In mid-December, the first large storms in three years drenched California. No one knows whether the rain and snow will continue—only that it must last for weeks if a record three-year drought, both natural and man-made, is to end. In the 1970s, coastal elites squelched California’s near-century-long commitment to building dams, reservoirs, and canals, even as the Golden State’s population ballooned. Court-ordered drainage of man-made lakes, meant to restore fish to the 1,100-square-mile Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta, partly caused central California’s reservoir water to dry up. Not content with preventing construction of new water infrastructure, environmentalists reverse-engineered existing projects to divert precious water away from agriculture, privileging the needs of fish over the needs of people. Then they alleged that global warming, not their own foolish policies, had caused the current crisis.

Even as a fourth year of drought threatens the state, canal water from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir in Yosemite National Park keeps Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area a verdant oasis. This parched coastal mountain range would have depopulated long ago without the infrastructure that an earlier, wiser generation built and that latter-day regulators and environmentalists so casually deprecated. (See “California’s Promethean Past,” Summer 2013.) Gardens and lawns remain green in Palo Alto, San Mateo, Cupertino, and San Francisco, where residents continue to benefit from past investments in huge water transfers from inland mountains to the coast. They will be the last to go dry.

I grew up in the central San Joaquin Valley during the 1950s. In those days, some old-timers remembered with fondness when the undammed Kings River’s wild, white water would gush down into the sparsely populated valley. But most Californians never had such nostalgia. Past generations accepted that California was a growing state (with some 20 million people by 1970), that agriculture was its premier industry, and that the state fed not just its own people but millions across America and overseas. All of that required redistribution of water—and thus dams, reservoirs, and irrigation canals.

For 50 years, the state transferred surface water from northern California to the Central Valley through the California State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project. Given these vast and ambitious initiatives, Californians didn’t worry much about the occasional one- or two-year drought or the steady growth in population. The postwar, can-do mentality resulted in a brilliantly engineered water system, far ahead of its time, that brought canal water daily from the 30 percent of the state where rain and snow were plentiful—mostly north of Sacramento as well as from the Sierra Nevada Mountains—to the lower, western, and warmer 70 percent of the state, where people preferred to work, farm, and live.

Everyone seemed to benefit. Floods in northern California became a thing of the past. The more than 40 major mountain reservoirs generated clean hydroelectric power. New lakes offered recreation for millions living in a once-arid state. Gravity-fed snowmelt was channeled into irrigation canals, opening millions of new acres to farming and ending reliance on pumping the aquifer. To most Californians, the irrigated, fertile Central Valley seemed a natural occurrence, not an environmental anomaly made possible only through the foresight of a now-forgotten generation of engineers and hydrologists.

Just as California’s freeways were designed to grow to meet increased traffic, the state’s vast water projects were engineered to expand with the population. Many assumed that the state would finish planned additions to the California State Water Project and its ancillaries. But in the 1960s and early 1970s, no one anticipated that the then-nascent environmental movement would one day go to court to stop most new dam construction, including the 14,000-acre Sites Reservoir on the Sacramento River near Maxwell; the Los Banos Grandes facility, along a section of the California Aqueduct in Merced County; and the Temperance Flat Reservoir, above Millerton Lake north of Fresno. Had the gigantic Klamath River diversion project not likewise been canceled in the 1970s, the resulting Aw Paw reservoir would have been the state’s largest man-made reservoir. At two-thirds the size of Lake Mead, it might have stored 15 million acre-feet of water, enough to supply San Francisco for 30 years. California’s water-storage capacity would be nearly double what it is today had these plans come to fruition. It was just as difficult to imagine that environmentalists would try to divert contracted irrigation and municipal water from already-established reservoirs. Yet they did just that, and subsequently moved to freeze California’s water-storage resources at 1970s capacities.

All the while, the Green activists remained blissfully unconcerned about the vast immigration into California from Latin America and Mexico that would help double the state’s population in just four decades, to 40 million. Had population growth remained static, perhaps California could have lived with partially finished water projects. The state might also have been able to restore the flow of scenic rivers from the mountains to the sea, maintained a robust agribusiness sector, and even survived a four- or five-year drought. But if California continues to block new construction of the State Water Project as well as additions to local and federal water-storage infrastructure, officials must halve California’s population, or shut down the 5 million acres of irrigated crops on the Central Valley’s west side, or cut back municipal water usage in a way never before done in the United States.

When the drought began in autumn 2011, the average Californian barely noticed. Mountain reservoirs remained full throughout 2011 and much of 2012, thanks to ample rainfall in previous years. Though rain and snowfall plunged to as much as 40 percent below average in most inland counties, shortages affected only large agribusiness conglomerates on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley—a small group of corporate grandees with plenty of land and little public sympathy.

During that first year of drought, quarrels over water were mostly confined to farmers and environmentalists. Confident that stored surface water in mountain reservoirs would remain plentiful, the Greens insisted that the state continue to divert reservoir water away from agricultural usage—at roughly the same rate as during pre-drought years—in order to replenish rivers. In practical terms, however, the diversions meant that substantial amounts of stored snowmelt were released from mountain dams and allowed to flow freely to the Pacific Ocean. Farmers called that wasted water; environmentalists called it a return to a natural, preindustrial California. The Green dream was not simply river restoration and beautification, however. Bay Area environmentalists also believed that vastly increased freshwater inflows would help oxygenate the San Francisco Delta, thereby enabling the survival of the Delta smelt, a three-inch baitfish, while ensuring that salmon could be reintroduced into the San Joaquin River watershed.

Farmers mostly lost these early diversion battles. After all, the state’s reservoirs stood at or near capacity, previous wet years had recharged valley aquifers, and conventional wisdom held that the drought would probably end soon, anyway. Nevertheless, hand-painted protest signs began sprouting along Interstate 5, amid a few abandoned almond orchards, proclaiming a new “dust bowl” and condemning liberal Bay Area officials, such as Representative Nancy Pelosi and Senator Barbara Boxer, for supporting the river diversions. In Fresno County, the Consolidated Irrigation District and others stopped almost all surface deliveries to their agricultural water users from the Pine Flat dam on the Kings River reservoir. The water masters of the Kings River had enough stored water at Pine Flat to keep the reservoir at mostly normal levels. By cutting off deliveries to farmers, authorities had the luxury of releasing water to refurbish the lower Kings River for habitat restoration.

I experienced the effects of these policies firsthand. My property contains a 130-year-old abandoned well that my great-great-grandparents dug by hand and lined with tin pipe. Throughout 2012, the water table in my front yard remained about 40 feet below the surface, and all through the drought, the well proved a reliable barometer of changing groundwater levels. No one likes paying irrigation taxes for surface water not delivered, but local farmers shrugged, turned on their standby pumps, and drew from the shallow aquifer. We got by during the drought’s first year with only moderately elevated electricity bills. Fifty miles to the west, however, farmers and agribusinesses on the Central Valley’s west side resorted to drilling deeper, sometimes in excess of 1,500 feet. Pumping brackish water from great depths is an unsustainable way to irrigate millions of acres of valuable croplands. The entire 5 million-acre west-side agricultural project that arose from desert scrub didn’t exist before the early 1960s—precisely because the region had neither an aquifer nor a water project to deliver surface irrigation water from northern and eastern California.

As the drought continued, the political debate heated up. Farmers reminded Bay Area Greens that they had no proof that the Delta smelt was suffering from a lack of fresh river water. Equally likely culprits for the fish’s plight were the more than 30 Bay Area and Stockton-area municipalities that dump oxygen-depleted wastewater into the baitfish’s habitat. The farmers noted the irony of using artificial reservoirs to ensure supposedly “natural” year-round river flows for salmon and smelt. Before the construction of California’s modern dams, Sierra snowmelts didn’t necessarily ensure continually rushing rivers. Nineteenth-century spring floods into the valley usually were followed by a depleted late-summer Sierra snowpack and dry August river trickles. How odd, farmers thought, that environmentalists opposed new dams and reservoirs as “unnatural,” and yet counted on existing reservoir water to maintain a dependable habitat for newly introduced salmon. Before the dams, nature simply didn’t operate that way.

In the winter of 2012, the drought entered its second year, but record-high agricultural commodity prices tempered the farmers’ acrimony. Newly affluent customers in China and India—in addition to wealthy Japanese, Taiwanese, and South Korean consumers—fueled demand for premium California dairy products, wine, nuts and dried fruits, fresh fruits and vegetables, beef, and cotton. Raisin prices jumped from $900 per ton to more than $1,900 per ton. Some almond growers became millionaires overnight. When the per-pound price of nuts tripled, and new varieties of trees and new farming practices bolstered production to well over 3,000 pounds per acre, a once-“inefficient” family farmer with 40 acres could suddenly net $5,000 an acre. Given that harvesting almonds is mostly mechanized and requires little, if any, manual labor, growers embarked on planting sprees up and down the drought-stricken valley. If 40 acres could net $200,000, large conglomerates of 5,000 acres or more might see profits of $25 million annually. Pistachios and walnuts proved even more lucrative. For the first time in a quarter-century, Central Valley farmers saw the kind of prosperity associated with the Silicon and Napa Valleys.

By 2013, however, with snowfall scant, some northern California reservoirs had fallen far below normal levels. Farms on the Central Valley’s eastern side—the ones with prior privileged access to local irrigation districts and shallow water tables—faced a second year without surface-water deliveries. After 12 months of steady pumping, their water tables weren’t so shallow any more. My old well dipped to 60 feet as the water table began dropping more than a foot per month. In past years, I could count on access to canal water to replenish the water table. Now, for the first time in the 140-year history of our farm, nature and man had cut off the water. The well went dry.

Meanwhile, on the west side, state and local officials warned farmers that they might receive far less than even the 10 percent of contracted surface-water delivery that they’d been promised. Nevertheless, environmentalists prevailed upon the courts to extend orders diverting freshwater reserves from irrigation canals to rivers and the ocean. The public remained indifferent: the state had survived two years of drought before, and cities still got their water allotments from shrinking northern and mountain reservoirs. In 2012 and 2013, man-made reservoirs in San Francisco and Los Angeles brimmed while the northern and mountain lakes that supplied them were just two-thirds full. Facing no threat of rationing, coastal Californians didn’t worry if a few hundred thousand acres of lucrative orchards simply shriveled up.

As 2013 wore on, climatologists, trying to project how long the drought might persist, warned state officials that their records only ran as far back as the late 1860s. California is a relatively new human habitat, and scientists can say little with certainty about the eons of natural history preceding the arrival of Spanish, Mexican, and American explorers. Tree-ring evidence suggests that past droughts had lasted 50 or even 100 years. Historically, drought may be the norm rather than the exception in California. This might explain why such a naturally rich state could support only a small population of indigenous people. Is coastal and central California, in its natural state, a mostly unsustainable desert for large, settled agrarian populations? Maybe modern Californians don’t fully appreciate the genius of their forefathers, who were prescient enough to see that, if huge quantities of water weren’t transferred from the wet northlands, the Sierras, and the Colorado River, then the cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles would be little more than arid coastal villages, analogous to lightly populated and perennially water-short Cayucos or Cambria, along Highway 1.

Californians heaved a sigh of relief after a few days of heavy rain in November 2013, and some early snowfalls seemed to suggest that the drought would end in 2014. But the relief was premature; the dry spells returned. What rain and snow followed was too little and far too late. Even the snowpack in the American River watershed—a northern river system usually drawing on the greatest snowmelts—reached just 12 percent of its average. Soon, the huge man-made reservoirs in both the ordinarily wet north and the arid center of the state—Folsom, Millerton, New Melones, Orville Pine Flat, San Luis, Shasta, Trinity—dipped below half-full levels and, in some cases, plunged below 10 percent of capacity. By July 2014, the average storage level of reservoirs statewide was 13 percent. Across the state, surface-irrigation deliveries to farms and orchards fell to near zero.

Farmers engaged in another vigorous round of groundwater pumping in summer 2014. Water tables predictably plunged even further. Disaster struck the west side, as large agribusiness concerns drilled new wells to unheard-of depths of 2,000 feet and more, installing massive 300-horsepower electric pumps to bring up just enough brackish water to trickle over their thirsty crops. Panic ensued even on the east side, with its famous and once-shallow aquifer. Farmers complained about six-month-long waiting lists to deepen their wells. Instead of the usual 150- or 200-foot wells, farmers drilled to depths of 300 or 400 feet, and drew water from 150 feet. Pump installations were similarly backlogged, and pump sizes increased from the standard 15-horsepower models to 20- and 50-horsepower machines—all this to ensure that a farmer’s particular straw had the best chance of siphoning every last drop from an emptying common glass.

Such every-man-for-himself drilling came with its own attendant human foibles—bribing drillers to cut in front of the waiting list; violating decade-old pump-sharing easements; stealthily tapping into neighbors’ pipeline systems; or charging exorbitant rates to give dry farmers access to working wells. Well-rig manufacturers had trouble keeping up with demand. Some entrepreneurs, eager to gouge desperate farmers, sought drilling machinery on the East Coast and overseas. Meanwhile, farmers understood that, with the commodities boom, an investment in permanent trees and vines might represent $15,000–$20,000 per acre and annual profits of over $5,000 per year. By 2014, keeping the orchard or vineyard alive, not just the current crop, became the aim. On the west side, some orchard owners began bulldozing older or less productive nut groves. Others tried to find just enough water to allow a final August or September harvest at record prices, before the exhausted trees were removed in the winter.

California’s huge urban reservoirs, however, remained full. Municipalities demanded that they receive all the final deliveries of state and federal surface water from the mountainous north and east. The Hetch Hetchy reservoir in Yosemite National Park still supplies almost 90 percent of the San Francisco Bay area’s daily water supplies. In a strange paradox, that water bypasses the San Joaquin River, into which environmentalists had diverted millions of acre-feet of irrigation water for fish. Even in 2014, as the state baked dry, environmentalists insisted on diverting what little mountain reservoir water remained to river-restoration efforts. Yet no environmentalist group has suggested that California tap Hetch Hetchy for habitat restoration in the same manner in which it has expropriated the water of farmers.

By late 2014, Pyramid and Castaic Lakes in southern California—part of the vast reserves controlled by the Southern California Metropolitan Water District—remained well above 90 percent of their capacities. But their sources in the distant north had almost no surface water left to give. The cities had drained and banked virtually all the state’s existing reservoirs. Indeed, so well banked are southern California’s project reservoirs that they have enough water to keep millions of customers well supplied through 2015, even as northern and central California communities dry up.

In reaction to these ongoing disasters and fearing a fourth year of drought, the legislature and Governor Jerry Brown placed a $7.5 billion water bond on the November 2014 ballot. It passed, but only a third of the money will go to construction of reservoirs canceled in the 1970s and 1980s. Most of the bond’s provisions will fund huge new state bureaucracies to regulate access to groundwater and mandate recycling. The bond will essentially void more than a century of complex water law as the state moves to curb farmers’ ability to pump water from beneath their own lands. Bay Area legislators who helped draft the bill failed to grasp that farmers bear the huge costs of drilling and pumping, not because they are greedy or insensitive to the environment but because the state’s population has doubled and its water infrastructure has not kept pace. A better way to regulate overdrafts of the water table would have been to increase vastly the amount of reservoir surface water for agriculture so that farmers would have no need to turn on their pumps. But legislators and policymakers let utopianism get in the way.

Last summer, my two agricultural pumps worked from June to late August to keep 40 acres of grapevines alive during 100-degree days. Electricity and pump maintenance are costly. So are the annual irrigation district taxes I’ve paid the last three years for contracted—though undelivered—surface water from the system that my great-grandfather and other pioneers built themselves with horse-drawn scrapers at the turn of the twentieth century. This winter, I added my name to the waiting list to lower the pump bowls—the impellers deep in the well that force the water up through the casing to the surface—in anticipation of another year of drought.

If the drought does continue, vast tracts of west-side farmlands will turn to dust. California’s nearly $30 billion agricultural export industry—led by dairy, almond, and grape production—is in grave peril. Its collapse would crush the economic livelihood of the Central Valley, especially its Hispanic community. When the 5 million-acre west side goes dry, hundreds of thousands of people will lose their jobs in a part of the state where the average unemployment rate already hovers above 10 percent. Farmers will spend hundreds of millions of dollars to deepen their wells further and save what water they can. Everything they and their predecessors have known for a century will be threatened with extinction.

Water is to California as coal is to Kentucky—yet its use is being curtailed by those least affected, if affected at all, by the consequences of their advocacy. But environmentalists, who for 40 years worked to undermine the prudent expansion of the state’s water infrastructure, have a rendezvous with those consequences soon. No reservoir water is left for them to divert—none for the reintroduction of their pet salmon, none for the Delta smelt. Their one hope is to claim possession of the water in the ground once they’ve exhausted what was above it. Redistribution, not expansion of supplies, is the liberal creed for water, just as it is for wealth.

As the Hetch Hetchy reservoir drains, Bay Area man-made storage lakes will necessarily follow. Another year of drought will deplete even southern California’s municipal reserves sooner rather than later. When Stanford professors and Cupertino tech lords cannot take a shower and find themselves paving over their suburban lawns and gardens, perhaps they, too, will see the value of reservoir water for people rather than for fish. The new dust bowl may soon see a different generation of Joads abandoning California for a wetter—and more prosperous—Midwest.

Could California still save itself? New reservoirs to store millions of acre-feet of snowmelt could be built relatively quickly for the price of the state’s high-speed rail boondoggle. Latino voters—the state’s largest minority—might come around to the view that the liberal coastal elite’s obsession with environmental regulations leads to higher electricity rates, gasoline prices, and food costs, along with fewer jobs and economic opportunities. Barring that, there may be only two things left for California farmers to do: pray for the recent wet weather to continue; and, if it does, pray further that environmentalists do not send the precious manna from heaven out to sea.

Victor Davis Hanson is a contributing editor of City Journaland the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.