Ever since the Gold Rush, California has been, as in Chick Berry’s sly homage, the promised land. GIs who passed through on their way to the Pacific in World War II saw paradise and moved there in droves in the 1950s. It was Hollywood. It was the Beach Boys. It was fast cars, surfboards, girls with tans and endless summer.
Twenty years ago I took a long looping drive east from San Diego up to Mt Palomar and back down the coast. It took me from the Pacific to the mountains to the Imperial Valley and the Salton Sea. There I saw a graphic depiction of a stark California reality beneath the golden surface. On one side of a road through the valley floor as far the eye could see were lush fields, green with produce. On the other side of the road, where irrigation had not yet arrived, was an arid, dusty wasteland. Milk and honey to the left, a valley of bones to the right.
Not for nothing did Robert Towne make the crux of the villainy in his great noir film “Chinatown” the ruthless control of water on which California’s honeyed prosperity has been built. And now the environmental chickens have come home to roost. Ironies abound.
When the Dust Bowl blew their land away, this is where the Joads headed. Today, an unprecedented drought may send migrants fleeing away. When the great postwar influx threatened to overwhelm the state’s ability to provide the life’s blood of water, Pat Brown was governor and presided over a public works project of Pharaonic scale to make a dry place habitable for many. Now his son Jerry is governor, and his task is to cope with the unbearable load his father‘s success has placed on the state’s carrying capacity.
The California Water Project in the middle of the last century decided since the north was wet but sparsely populated and the south was dry but growing exponentially, the people would not be forced to go to the water, the water would be brought to them. And it was, not just from northern California but from adjacent states and far off rivers. It was used to hydrate millions of people and irrigate 750,000 acres. And the water gods looked upon all they had made and, behold, it was good.
Too good to be true as it turned out. There are limits, but that is an unCalifornia notion. So they were exceeded. When the project began a little over 50 years ago there were 15 million Californians. Today, there are almost 40 million. There is no longer enough water to sustain them and their works. Due to drought and overbuilding, reservoirs are running dry, the aquifers have been dangerously depleted. Even if rainfall and snow melt were to return to normal levels it might take years, decades to recover.
In the meantime, the governor has reluctantly imposed a 25 percent cut in water consumption on the state’s urban residents, but not on its agricultural sector. Yet agriculture consumes 80 percent of the state’s water. Forget Hollywood and Silicon Valley, the golf courses at Pebble Beach and Torrey Pines, the desert that blooms at Palm Springs, and the swimming pools everywhere. Crops are the lifeblood of California’s economy and central to America’s dietary life.
California produces over 90 percent of the nation’s broccoli, celery, garlic, cauliflower, kiwis, plums, walnuts, artichokes and almost as high a percentage of dozen of other crops like spinach, almonds and carrots. When the water runs out, the fruit and nut trees will die and the fields return to desert. The economy of our most populous state will crash and burn and the rest of us won’t be feeling very well either.
Fewer baths, lawns, and glasses of complimentary water at Spago won’t be enough to solve this immense problem. Climate change deniers will insist the drought is just a natural fluctuation or God’s will. Boosters will recoil in horror from the notion of limiting growth, limiting consumption, limiting land use, limiting anything. But soon there will be no other choice. Land values could plummet, wealth vanish and an exodus to dwarf the Dust Bowl ensue. And the food on the nation’s dinner table will be a lot less varied, a lot more expensive or both.
It would be nice if the country would regard California’s plight as a titanic object lesson. And California is not alone. Many places west of the Mississippi are parched as well and praying for rain. Odds are the wake-up call will be ignored, however. The anti-government rhetoric of the last 30 years has taught people not to believe in communitarian solutions. The market knows best. Too many vested interests are entrenched to easily accept that hubris has its price or that changes must be made. Big changes.
But like it or not, changes there surely will. The real choice is whether to wait for a descent into dystopia or begin to use the resourcefulness on which California and the country were built to begin to adapt to a new reality. Those “Whole Earth Catalog” hippies from California in the ‘60s appear to have been right all along. Small is beautiful. Do more with less. Save the planet. Choose sustainability.