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How we drained California dry

A story of remaking the land and taking the water until there was nothing left.

Masumoto on his farm land
Masumoto, who has 80 acres in Del Rey, is nearing 68. “I think of our farm as being alive,” he says.Tomas Ovalle
December 16, 2021

The wind finally blew the other way last night and kicked out the smoke from the burning Sierra. Down here in the flatland of California, we used to regard the granite mountain as a place apart, our getaway. But the distance is no more. With all those dead pine trees in thrall to wildfire, the Sierra, transmuted into ash, is right outside our door. 

We have learned to watch the sky with an uncanny eye. We measure its peril. Some days, we breathe the worst air in the world. On those few days when we can walk outside without risking harm to our lungs and brains, we greet each other with new benedictions. May the shift in winds prevail, I tell my neighbor. May there be only the dust clouds from the almond harvest to contend with. In the meantime, I don’t dare quiet the turbo on my HEPA filters, hum of this new life. 

The most brutal of summers in the San Joaquin Valley has come to a rest at last. Since June, the temperature has broken the 100° mark for 67 days, a new record. Drought won’t let go its grip on the land. Eight of the past 10 years have been ugly dry. This October morning, after a month holed up, I decided to leave my house in the suburbs and roam the middle of California, the irrigated desert at its most supreme. Out in the country, I smell fall in the air. To celebrate its arrival, I’m going to visit an old friend, a farmer named Masumoto, who has 80 acres in Del Rey and is putting the last of his raisins in a box. 

There is no way to make this drive out of Fresno at harvest’s end, through the dog-tired fields of the most industrialized farm belt in the world, without thinking about water: the idea of it, the feel of it; the form as it falls from the sky as rain and snow, that man captures with his invention and implementation, his magic and plunder, the dam, the ditch, the canal, the aqueduct, the pump, the drip line; the water that gives rise to every animate and inanimate thing that now stretches before my eyes, the vineyard, orchard, cotton field, and housing tract; the water whose too much can destroy us, whose too little can destroy us, whose perfect measure of our needs becomes our superstition and story.  

You should know that I have written about the matter of California and water a few times before, and I’m not above borrowing from old refrains. In my hunt for new words, I have driven Highway 99 a thousand times through a valley that geologists call the most-altered landscape by human hands in history. I now see the gashes of fresh alterations. What has been done here, by any means necessary, has been done for the want of water.

The taking of Cali­fornia was no small project. It relied on the erasure of the most prolific flowering of indigenous people in the United States. The civilization standing in the way was at least 10,000 years in the making and 300,000 strong. They were Yokuts, Maidu, Miwok, Klamath, Pomo, Chumash, and Kumeyaay, to name a few. Looking back at the fevered pace of our footprints over the past 175 years, we tend to idealize the modesty of theirs. And yet it is more than likely true given their numbers, given the bounty and heft of the land, that they did not war with each other over its prize. They lived light on the earth. They moved when nature moved. Flood took them to one place, drought another. When the forest load needed thinning, the fires they set burned brush and lower branch and quickly smothered out.   

As genocides go, the wiping clean of California’s indigenous culture was protracted, playing out in three acts: Spanish mission, Mexican occupation, American settlement. The atrocities were only as efficient as the tools of the time—blanket, smallpox, syphilis, torch, knife, Colt .45—allowed. First came the robed Franciscans led by Father Serra, slaver and saint, whose possession of the Indian body gave him the workforce to erect the first crude dams and canals that took rivers to places they’d never been: his 21 missions, from San Diego to Sonoma. At the Mission San Gabriel, the catch of water grew a profusion of grains, vegetables, exotic fruits, and the 170-acre “Las Vina,” mother vineyard. 

Next came the dons from Mexico, freed from Spain’s yoke, whose dalliance with California lasted but a quarter-century, from 1821 to 1848. Blending European, Mexican, and American lineages, they called themselves Californios. Rather than tame California’s many states of nature, they amassed millions of acres and tamed themselves. On far-flung rancherias, they slaughtered a calf a day to feast on, drank vast quantities of wine and brandy, and threw royal weddings in which daughters who’d been locked away in finishing schools all their lives finally came out into the sun. In a moment of goodwill, they pledged that the mission lands, and their flow of water, would be turned over to the remaining natives, but the pledge never amounted to a thing.

TOMAS OVALLE

American settlers had been nosing around for decades—mountain men, fur trappers, scouts and surveyors. When they finally made their intentions known, in the summer of 1846, the government standing behind them grabbed the western edge of a continent, 1,000 miles long, without firing an official shot. What are a people to do when the land they conquer covers 11 regions of topography and 10 degrees of latitude, where rain measures 140 inches on one end and two inches on the other end? Another people might have taken the stance that each region ought to exist within its own plenitude and limit. These people drew a line around the whole, declared it one state, and began their infinite tinkering to even out the difference.

Manifest destiny would have had its way with California, sure and steady, but the shout of gold, in 1848, was heard around the world. Gold’s cataclysm was a force of a different magnitude. Overnight they sailed ashore by the tens of thousands, mad miners from all over the globe, most of whom had never mined a day in their lives. They went at mountain and river with claws. Mining gold, they discovered, was mining water on an industrial scale.

The people forgot about flood with the same nonchalance that they forgot about drought. Their failure of memory became a strange resilience.

“Water! Water! Water!” shouted James Mason Hutchings, an Englishman who published a quarterly of unparalleled excellence, Hutchings’ Illustrated California Magazine, in the 1850s. “Not water to drink, for that can be found bubbling up on every mountaintop, but water to work with. Working men dig gold. Gold, thus dug, would be put in circulation. That circulation would give prosperity. We will therefore, with the same language as the horseleech, cry, ‘Give, Give,’ but let the gift be Water! Water! Water!”

By the time the great deluge of 1862 rained down, Hutchings’s magazine was no more. It would be left to William Brewer, who studied at Yale and came west to survey California’s natural resources, to describe what the floodwaters had done. “Nearly every house and farm over this immense region is gone,” he wrote. “America has never before seen such desolation by a flood as this has been.” Brewer had come to recognize the Californian’s peculiar fortitude to outlast everything: “No people can so stand calamity as this people. They are used to it.”

The people forgot about flood with the same nonchalance that they forgot about drought. Their failure of memory became a strange resilience. They went back to their digging with newfound lust. They erected 6,000 miles of ditches and built a dam 100 feet tall. The flows of Northern California rivers were now dictated by a handful of industrialists. To reach the deeper veins of gold, they invented hydraulic cannons that shot out water at such force that it blew the walls off mountains. Into the rivers washed the tailings, more than a billion cubic yards of boulder, rock, pebble, and mud. Tens of thousands of acres of new crops planted in the alluvial plain began to choke on the retch of the mines. 

As to the future of California, the industrialists who lived atop San Francisco’s Nob Hill had a choice to make: gold or grain? Isaac Friedlander, six foot seven and 300 pounds, whose stride was said to be that of two men, who had made his fortune by cornering the market on flour for the mining camps, snatched one million acres of valley soil for practically nothing. He became the Wheat King.

I am sailing across the desert, that is true, but it isn’t the Mojave. The San Joaquin Valley, 260 miles long and 50 miles wide, qualifies as desert only by measure of average rain—less than 10 inches a year. Five rivers, two of them mighty, run down from the Sierra across its breadth. The best of the dirt, a loam that blends sand and clay, grows beets the size of an ogre’s head. The sun shines 280 days a year, and the sky doesn’t generate any rain from May to September. The blanket of fog that sets down in winter holds the chill of hibernation close to the fruit and nut trees. The importance of these chilling hours was a lesson my father’s father, Aram Arax, a poet-farmer, thought I should know: “The apricot is a picky thing. It has to feel the kiss of the death in winter to hold on to its fruit in spring.” He would need to go back to the Mediterranean, he told me, to find a clime where all manner of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and grains grew with such ease. 

The 49ers who had made their way down the hill knew what to do with this fecundity. So did the cotton growers from the South who were chased off their plantations by the boll weevil. They corralled the rivers with a lattice of ditches and made them run backward. They drained dry the great inland marsh and Tulare Lake, too, the largest freshwater body west of the Mississippi. They wiped out the last of the elk, antelope, and mustang and emptied the sky of geese. They flattened the hillock and hog wallow with the Fresno Scraper and turned 6 million acres into tabletop. That’s how the water of furrow irrigation glided.

Their seize of the snowmelt—“first in line, first in right”—had no parallel in agriculture. They did not take half the flow of the rivers. They did not take three-quarters. By the time the farmers were done, they had taken nine out of every 10 drops. When their garden was ready for showing, their promotional brochures fairly boasted, “Fresno County: A Wonderfully Prosperous District in California. The Land of Sunshine. Fruits and Flowers. No Ice. No Snow. No Blizzards. No Cyclones.”

It would be easy to dismiss the lure of such hype. But word of their feat—“the first great experiment in irrigation by the Anglo-Saxon race”—reached all the way to Istanbul, to the attic where my grandfather Arax was hiding from the Turks in 1918. His uncle, who had lost his wife and children in the massacres and had fled to Fresno, was writing him letters describing an Eden in a valley at the edge of the Sierra: “You must see it with your own eyes to believe it.”

My grandfather was plotting his way to the Sorbonne, to study French literature and become a writer, but the letters kept coming, each one more full of sadness and hope than the one before. In the summer of 1920, after a 7,000-mile-long journey, he found himself at the train depot in downtown Fresno. Nephew and uncle, survivors of genocide, hugged and climbed into a gleaming Model T Ford and rode from river to river, across an expanse already known as the “Raisin Capital of the World.” They passed grapes, peaches, and plums and lingered on 12,000 acres of figs that a Kansas preacher was planting in the red hardpan. My grandfather, awestruck, kept muttering the same words: “Just like the old land.” 

As I approach the Kings River—emptied of river, nothing but sand—I can hear the words he used to describe our last farm, the one embroidered with pomegranate trees that my father, Ara, and his brother, Navo, to my grandfather’s regret, sold a few years before I was born. I grew up in the suburbs not a dozen miles removed from those 60 acres, but it might as well have been an ocean away, for who we were and what we had done to make the desert bloom wasn’t a topic we discussed. 

We had the Cotton King, Grape King, Melon King, and Tomato King right in our midst, men who possessed the lion’s share of our water, but how this dominion had happened remained a civic mystery. Irrigation canals full of snowmelt knifed through our neighborhoods, but it never occurred to me to ask where the water was coming from, to whom it was going, and by what right. The canals were completely unfenced, and one or more children of the Mexican farm workers, looking to cool off in summer, drowned in them every year. “Don’t go next to those canals,” my grandmother Alma warned. “If you fall in, they won’t fish you out. They won’t stop the flow until the harvest is over.” 

The new land was nothing like the old land. 

Not a year after my grandfather arrived, the raisin went bust. The Armenian and Japanese farmers had planted so many grapes to dry into raisins that Sun-Maid couldn’t sell half of them. Who would buy the other half became a question of such wonderful theater, tragic and comic, that even Fresno’s sage, William Saroyan, would weigh in. If we could only persuade every mother in China to put a single raisin in her pot of rice, we’d have the glut solved, he mused. 

Just as the bust hit, the great drought of the 1920s hit too, revealing the folly and greed of California agriculture. It wasn’t enough that the farmers had taken the five rivers. They were now using turbine pumps to seize the aquifer, the ancient lake beneath the valley. In a land of glut, they were planting hundreds of thousands more acres of crops. This bigger footprint wasn’t prime farmland but poor, salty dirt beyond rivers’ reach. As the drought worsened, the new farms were extracting so much water out of the ground that their pumps couldn’t reach any lower. Their crops were withering. 

A cry went out from the agrarians to the politicians: “Steal us a river.” They were eyeing the flood flows of the Sacramento River up north. If the plan sounded audacious, well, just such a theft had already been accomplished by the City of Los Angeles, reaching up and over the mountain to steal the Owens River.

This is how the federal government, in the 1940s, came to build the Central Valley Project, damming the rivers and installing mammoth pumps in the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta to move water to the dying farms in the middle. This is how the state of California, in the 1960s, built the State Water Project, installing more pumps in the delta and a 444-mile-long aqueduct to move more water to grow more farms in the middle and more houses and swimming pools in Southern California. 

This is how we’ve come to the point today, during the driest decade in state history, that valley farmers haven’t diminished their footprint to meet water’s scarcity but have added a half-­million more acres of permanent crops—more almonds, pistachios, mandarins. They’ve lowered their pumps by hundreds of feet to chase the dwindling aquifer even as it dwindles further, sucking so many millions of acre-feet of water out of the earth that the land is sinking. This subsidence is collapsing the canals and ditches, reducing the flow of the very aqueduct that we built to create the flow itself. 

How might a native account for such madness?  

No civilization had ever built a grander system to transport water. It sprawled farmland. It sprawled suburbia. It made rise three world-class cities, and an economy that would rank as the fifth largest in the world. But it did not change the essential nature of California. Drought is California. Flood is California. One year our rivers and streams produce 30 million acre-feet of water. The next year, they produce 200 million acre-feet. The average year, 72.5 million acre-feet, is a lie we tell ourselves.

I am sitting on the porch of a century-old farmhouse, eating kebabs and pilaf with David “Mas” Masumoto. We’re looking out in near silence at his 80 acres of orchards and vineyards not far from the Kings River. His small work crew has gone home. His wife, Marcy, is doing volunteer work overseas, and their three dogs, all stinking, know no bounds. The whole place looks exhausted, like a farm where the farmer has died. But Mas, nearing 68, is as alive as ever. 

We got to know each other 25 years ago on the occasion of his first book, Epitaph for a Peach, a memoir about a farm passed down from father to son and the son’s determination not to plow under an old variety of the fruit. The heirloom was called Sun Crest, and it had fallen out of favor with the market because it bruised too easily. Golden, sweet, and juicy, it was worth saving, Mas thought. “You take one bite, and it throws you back in time,” he had told me then. “Fruit is memory.”

I hadn’t heard a farmer talk that way since my grandfather, and so I wrote a story about him in the Los Angeles Times, and he handed me a young Sun Crest to plant in my own backyard, and it bore so many peaches next to the swimming pool that my wife, after our divorce, declared the tree a “mess” and pulled it out. Mas, on the other hand, had saved the peach. Chef Alice Waters, for one, read his book and started serving Sun Crests, all by themselves, as dessert at Chez Panisse.

David Masumato walks with dog
TOMAS OVALLE

He points to a spot in the orchard where they’re still standing, more gnarled and weather-beaten but still producing. He counts himself among the lucky. His father, Takashi, chose this land well. It sits inside an irrigation district with an early call on the river. Even in low-runoff years, his water table gets recharged. 

“We’re irrigating right now, matter of fact,” he says. “The water table has dropped some, but out here that means we’re sitting at 70 feet [deep]. Up and down the valley, it doesn’t get much better than that.”

“How’d the harvest go? 

“It’s the middle of October, and it’s still going,” he says with disbelief.

Talking about the weather with a farmer isn’t like talking about the weather with anyone else. It’s prying into the soul of things. I venture the opinion that this long dry spell isn’t only California returning to drought form. It’s climate change hitching onto drought, creating an altogether new havoc. Mas isn’t like most farmers. He grows his fruit organically and drives a Prius. “Climate” and “change” are words he speaks together.

“I’ve seen things this harvest I’ve never seen before,” he says.

“I’m not saying we don’t fight climate change as a society. We have no choice but to. But out here, it’s folly trying to control nature.”

We finish our kebabs and walk the century-old rows. The Thompson seedless vines look ready to kiss winter and fall asleep. But the amber grapes laid out on paper trays in the terraced loam are only half baked. I know the rhythm, and the rhythm is off. Thompsons are put down in early September to avoid fall’s first rain. It takes but 12 days for the valley sun to wrinkle a grape into a raisin. Mas’s raisins are a month late in drying. They’ve already been rained on once.

“It’s a mystery,” he says. 

He bends down into the crouch that raisin farmers assume when they are about to examine their crop. He sifts through the bunches with his sunburned hands, feeling for that sticky. He puts a couple in his mouth, feeling for that chewy. It’s not there.

“Not a raisin yet? How do you figure?” I ask. 

He looks to the sky. “This summer was record hot. They should have ripened right up. But the sun didn’t shine the same.”

I don’t know what he means. 

“All that smoke and ash from the forest fires. It changed the rays, I figure. It bent them somehow. They didn’t come through the same.”

I nod and keep listening. He is talking about nature’s cycle. Drought helped kill the trees in the forest. Desiccated by thirst, they were whittled out by bark beetles. Lightning lit that kindling. Kindling became smoke and ash. Smoke and ash occluded the sky. This slowed the ripening of grapes on the vine. This slowed the baking of grapes into raisins. 

Thanks to the wind, the sky is now clear, but it’s too late. October has changed the angle of the sun hitting the rows.  

“We’ve lost our oven,” he says. “I’ll likely be sending these raisins to the mechanical dryer. That’s never happened before. They won’t taste the same.”

It was hard to find a sweeter spot on earth for farming. Mas had the soil, he had the river, he had the aquifer, and he had the sunshine, or at least he thought he did. He did not have the science to explain it, but climate change had found him too. 

“I think of our farm as being alive,” he says. “Nature is alive. Climate is alive. Is the idea to try and kill it? I’m not saying we don’t fight climate change as a society. We have no choice but to. But out here, it’s folly trying to control nature.”

We walk past the giant concrete standpipe, filling up with water that will give a last drink to the farm before winter. He talks proudly about his daughter, Nikiko, and his son, Korio, who will take over these acres sooner rather than later.

“Out here, everything is going to take time,” he says.

We hug goodbye. I get into my little Chevy, turn on the electrical engine, and drive home through the dust. The pomegranates are turning red, and I can’t help thinking: How much time do we have?

Mark Arax is the author of several books, most recently The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California.

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