Unmaking California’s Central Valley

By Sayd RandleDecember 31, 2020

Unmaking California’s Central Valley

The Dreamt Land by Mark Arax

IN THIS YEAR of heat records and fire tornadoes, California faces another potential crisis: drought. In November 2020, more than 80 percent of the state’s land mass was classified as somewhere between “abnormally dry” and “extreme drought” by the United States Drought Monitor. The chances of the winter offering relief look slim, given what’s called a “La Niña climate pattern,” which is associated with arid conditions in much of California. The months ahead are, in general, far more likely to bring water worries than happy surprises.

To longtime California residents, such fears are familiar. The state’s most recent drought began in 2012 and stretched into the early days of the Trump administration. Minds not entirely fogged by 2020 may recall the choreographed spectacle in April 2015 when then-Governor Jerry Brown stood on a snowless mountaintop to announce the state’s first-ever mandatory urban water conservation measures. That drought of droughts produced no shortage of breathless media coverage, usually featuring images of the cracked mud around receding reservoirs or signs above Los Angeles freeways urging water conservation. It also led to Fresno journalist Mark Arax’s The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California (2019), a compelling brick of a book that places that epic dry spell within a much longer history of efforts to manage the state’s characteristic and now intensifying climatic variability.

Arax mostly focuses on the water dramas of the Central Valley, his home and California’s agricultural heartland. Even readers only acquainted with the Valley from driving the I-5 between San Francisco and Los Angeles will be familiar with roadside signs emblazoned with messages like “Congress-created Dust Bowl” and “Is Growing FOOD Wasting Water?” His book excavates the byzantine conflicts behind these pissy billboards while also unraveling how the area’s mythic sense of place has guided its water use. Irrigation water piped in from elsewhere, he contends, has performed a peculiar kind of transformative magic, enabling hundreds of thousands of acres of alkali to bloom with almonds and “Cuties.” But the illusion that a few men (and even fewer women) might be able to perpetually conjure a garden on this salty plane is just that: an illusion. It is already dimming, and with it, a particular notion of California’s birthright. In a Valley established through a certain Manifest Destiny–infused swagger, the specter of retreat — unplanting, unbuilding, unsettling — haunts its current generation of water summoners.

Summoning an Illusion of Plenty

In the early 1900s, self-branded rainmaker Charles Hatfield famously sold his rain-calling services to farmers and towns across California. Many were skeptical of his methods, until they found their homes washed away by the 1916 deluge he had supposedly “summoned” under contract with the City of San Diego — and so his business continued to thrive. Arax treats Californians’ willingness to believe in such water-related chicanery as revealing: in their bones, they know that their cities and farms are built in semi-arid terrain, and so they fall for slippery magic to secure their claims to a watery future.

He tells us that, by contrast, Indigenous communities of the pre-settlement era adapted to reality: “In times of drought and flood, they migrated to places that better sustained them. They moved as California moved.” Drought, flood, and fire, all sui generis elements of the California landscape, were recurring phenomena to avoid rather than control. But during the bloody transition to the Spanish mission era, colonizers had different ideas; they exploited Indigenous labor for the development of dams and canals, thus securing a more settled life in the Valley. The 19th century saw the spread of increasingly intensive forms of cultivation, which Arax links directly to the 49ers’ aggressively extractive approach to the nearby mountains. “How fast did the ethos of the gold mine come down the mountain and transplant itself onto the soil of the valley floor?” he asks, then offers the rejoinder: “It happened in California time, which is to say the second rush began before the first one ended.”

Land barons, backed by urban capital, rushed to mine the Valley soils for profit. Arax uses a trio of characters — “wheat king” Isaac Friedlander, “the grand Khan of the Kern” James Ben Ali Haggin, and creepy cattle baron Henry Miller — to recount how the barons snatched and then planted broad swaths of the Valley floor between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The scale of their holdings, plantings, and riches were legion. And they were notably impermanent. For instance, Friedlander’s early death in 1878 came in the midst of a wheat glut and widespread land exhaustion due to intensive monocultural production. Within a couple of decades, much of the Valley’s wheat-planted land had reverted to dust.

But the wheat bust obviously wasn’t the end of the story. As the 19th century became the 20th, Haggin, Miller, and their ilk began to coalesce around a common goal: harnessing the state’s erratic water and then distributing it to the men farming the state’s most promising land — i.e., them. Happily for the barons and their descendants, California was entering an era of aqueducts, when few questioned the notion that water could and should be moved in the service of economic development (see: Los Angeles). In the 1930s, after a protracted period of advocacy, the cause of transporting water to the fields (and future fields) of the Valley became compelling enough to capture federal funding. The Bureau of Reclamation’s Central Valley Project initiated water deliveries to farmers in 1949, and California voters approved the even-bigger State Water Project in 1960. Moving massive volumes of water to the Valley had become part of the vital infrastructure of the state.

Arax is covering territory familiar to readers of Donald Worster’s classic history, Rivers of Empire (1985). But Worster used the Valley’s water story to advance a sweeping theoretical argument: increasing control over nature goes hand in hand with increasing concentration of power in the hands of a shrinking number of people, undergirded by increasing exploitation of the masses. Worster places the rise of the Valley’s big irrigators and infrastructure within a longer, global story about water control and social power. Arax, who cites Worster’s work, is by contrast both less polemical and more sympathetic to the characters he uses to advance his narrative, taking a certain pleasure in describing them as curiosities, a coterie of bizarre-but-colorful individuals. Yes, he seems to suggest, these men may have gotten rich exploiting and manipulating workers, land, government bureaucracies, and water, but doesn’t it make good copy?

Climate Change, Thinkable Nightmares, and Unimagined Futures in the Valley

A certain ambivalence also marks the sections of the book set in the long, anxious near-present of California’s 2012–2017 drought. Again, Arax builds his narrative through the stories of the region’s biggest farmers, including Stewart and Lynda Resnick of the “Wonderful Company,” the Valley’s current 500-pound gorilla of a grower and the popularizer of pomegranate juice, “Cuties”-branded oranges, and pistachios. Largely shut out from direct contact with Stewart after a trio of interviews in 2008, Arax pursues his story from a range of other vantages: the town of Lost Hills, home to many of the Chicano farmworkers who labor on the Resnicks’ land; the fields themselves, where he discovers a secret water pipeline from the North; a pistachio conference where Lynda gives a keynote. The initial impetus for this chase came in 2003, when Arax reported on the Resnicks’ quiet control over a major groundwater bank in the Valley. But it appears to have continued due to the confounding fact that, like other Valley growers, the Wonderful Company was actually expanding its acreage during the state’s record-shattering dry spell.

That expansion is stunning for several reasons, not only because the Valley lacked local rainfall but because it received minimal water deliveries from the pipelines built to slake its thirst. Stewart was not alone: many farmers concluded that the high price of nuts made the math of planting new stands of almond and pistachio trees and sustaining them exclusively with deep-pumped groundwater pencil out. Rather than watching planted land turn to dust (as in, say, the actual Dust Bowl in the 1930s), these growers were pulling water from thousands of feet beneath the ground to turn dust into nuts.

These developments make the defensive farm rhetoric that lines I-5 seem confusing. Surely the agricultural apocalypse can’t be nigh if we’re planting new acreage? Arax deftly outlines the factors driving both the performative discourse and the underlying fear. California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, a law passed in 2014 that requires overdrafted basins to achieve sustainable yields by 2040, directly threatens growers’ long-used practice of pumping deeper and deeper during lean water years. The removal of this backstop looks even scarier in the context of the anticipated impacts of climate change, which will likely make long stretches of dry years like 2012–2017 more common. By the book’s end, it’s clear that the current arrangements of cultivation cannot and will not withstand those shifts, and that growers’ demands for greater access to water from other parts of the state tacitly acknowledge these changes.

Less straightforward is whether Arax interprets the coming reckoning as a particularly desirable development. While he critiques the labor practices and environmental degradation wrought by the big growers, and at many points recognizes the need to move cultivation from the Valley’s most marginal lands, it’s impossible to miss his resistance to the idea of unplanting the region. Nostalgia is likely at work, signaled through stories from his family’s three generations of agriculture-adjacent life in and near Fresno. But the specter of a particular, odious “other” by way of suburban development is also a factor. Late in the text, he spells out the future he sees for the Valley: “[T]he middle of the state will move closer and closer to the model of Los Angeles, the old suburb putrefying from the core so that the new suburb on the edge can rise and take its place.” Housing tracts are the tragic end he anticipates, their ugliness intensified by the potential fecundity of the land sitting beneath them.

It seems worth pausing here to acknowledge that there is another way forward. Discussed most frequently in coastal and fire-prone zones, managed retreat — that is, the planned unsettling of or relocation from a threatened area — offers the possibility of abandoning increasingly dangerous terrain. The conflict between this approach and the ideology of Manifest Destiny, the we-are-meant-to-inhabit-this-whole-continent mindset that drove Anglo settlement of the US West and remains a potent force in contemporary politics, is obvious. Yet while one might anticipate across-the-board resistance to such “giving up” of land, there’s a precedent for communities uniting to demand just this outcome.

“Retreat is a powerful and evocative word, one that signals a change in direction — something we share the need for as a society even though we do not all live in places that are immediately vulnerable,” UCLA professor Liz Koslov concludes in a recent assessment of managed retreat discourse and practice. Recounting several cases of communities pursuing this outcome, including the Midwestern town of Valmeyer following a 1993 inundation by the Mississippi River and dozens of Staten Island homeowners following 2013’s Hurricane Sandy, Koslov highlights the broader value of the concept as a tool for thinking, even in cases where it isn’t being actively considered.

California’s Central Valley certainly seems to be one such case. For all the talk of a Dust Bowl future, the farmers whom Arax spends time with seem uninterested in any kind of coordinated unplanting of their fruited acreage. Nut prices are still high. Labor remains cheap. And the planters’ deepest pumps are still sucking up irrigation water, even though this extraction is causing the land to buckle and sink in some areas. Incentives still abound for staying put, not to mention there being enormous sunk costs in these operations. But keeping all that in mind, even “the Oracle,” a longtime grower with whom Arax spends several pages late in the book, concedes that thousands upon thousands of acres of the Valley will almost inevitably revert to scrubland in the coming decades. It’s as though the central characters of this story can anticipate retreat as a vague and inevitable disaster, but the notion of planning for it is unthinkable.

Old Dreams, New Forms

Everyone in Arax’s book struggles to envision a future Central Valley that looks like something other than the present (dangerously overplanted), the past (sandy scrubland), or hell (exurban Los Angeles). Not so with the authors of The Power of Place, a report released by The Nature Conservancy a few weeks after the publication of Arax’s book. “In California, it will be important to align solar energy planning with groundwater management activities that will require the retirement of agricultural lands driven by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act,” the authors write. In other words: This ground could be growing renewable energy.

Arax’s single reference to solar comes late in the book, when Jack Woolf, an elderly Valley farmer, sniffs at a PG&E photovoltaic installation: “There’s a place for solar in California, but not on ground this productive.” But the Westlands Water District, the nation’s largest water agency devoted to food production, apparently disagrees. The District, known to anyone who follows California water news as a behemoth with shady-sounding ties to the Trump administration, has plans to develop roughly 20,000 acres of the Valley’s degraded former (or soon-to-be-former) agricultural land into the world’s largest solar plant. The Resnicks are also moving in this direction, having signed a contract in 2019 with an energy developer to build out 157 acres of solar on their land. As deadlines associated with the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act approach, discussions about non-irrigated uses for the Valley’s land continue to expand.

For the climate-conscious observer, this shift in land use sounds alluring. For one thing, in order to meet its 2045 renewable energy targets, California needs to rapidly expand its production capacity. For another, the extensively cultivated landscapes of the Valley host a small fraction of the threatened species that inhabit many of the state’s undeveloped desert lands, and thus conservationists are more likely to be on board. But Arax’s account helps situate such a transition in a longer and more ambivalent narrative of extracting value from this landscape. These early days of the Valley’s renewable energy phase don’t appear to feature a meaningful disaggregation of landholdings. As in the 19th and 20th centuries, the solar era may once again feature a few large landowners reaping enormous profits by harvesting local resources for consumption elsewhere. Put differently: In its new iteration, the Valley may be a place of ever more dust and far fewer almond trees. But the dream of California’s heartland as a perpetually productive landscape controlled by a few barons seems poised to persist.


Sayd Randle is an ethnographer, a political ecologist, and a postdoc in the Department of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley.

LARB Contributor

Sayd Randle is an ethnographer, political ecologist, and a postdoc in the Department of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research interests include climate change, cities, water, infrastructure, temporality, and speculative fiction.


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