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On a hot summer afternoon, California farmer Chris Hurd barrels down a country road through the Central Valley city of Firebaugh, his dog Frank riding in the truck bed. He lurches to a stop in front of Oro Loma Elementary School, which was built in the 1950s to accommodate an influx of farmers’ and farmworkers’ children.

“All three of my sons went here,” Hurd says, as we walk through overgrown weeds toward the building, shuttered in 2010. “I was on the school board; the grass was green; kids were running around. Now it’s a pile of rubble.”

Agricultural land stretches out in every direction. Most of the town’s 8,300 residents are involved in growing or packing produce. The city is on the west side of the San Joaquin River, an area hit particularly hard by a historic drought, now in its fifth year. Wells have run dry, and farm-related jobs are running out.

Many other places in the eight counties comprising the San Joaquin Valley have suffered similar fates. These areas were disadvantaged to begin with, rural and isolated, lacking infrastructure, public transportation and safe housing. Persistent drought has compounded the struggles of some of the poorest communities in the nation. As of late January, 64 percent of the state was experiencing extreme drought—down from 78 percent that time last year. But even a stellar El Niño year won’t undo all the damage.

Hurd, 65, who earned a degree in mechanized agriculture from California Polytechnic San Luis Obispo in 1972, has farmed for the past 33 years. These days, he tends 1,500 acres and serves on the board of a local water district. Right now, he’s debating whether to rip out 80 acres of 20-year-old almond trees whose yields don’t justify the cost of the water. Three years ago, his annual water bill was $500,000. Now, he says, it’s $2.5 million; the price per acre-foot has increased sharply since the drought. Farmers like Hurd, who have junior water rights, are the first to see their allocations from the state’s two major water projects curtailed during shortages, forcing them to invest in new wells to pump groundwater or buy water on the market. In 2014, farmers with junior water rights faced an unprecedented zero allocation from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Central Valley Project. That happened again last year. In late February, the federal project will announce its water supply outlook for 2016. The State Water Project has also dramatically reduced its deliveries over the last two years.

In John Steinbeck’s classic novel,The Grapes of Wrath, farmers escape Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl by heading west to California in search of jobs and fertile land. Hurd says his friends have begun joking, grimly, about the reverse scenario—California isn’t working out, so why not pick up and move back to Oklahoma?

“Some are leaving; some are staying to fight; a lot of them are in flux,” he says.

Yet while grit has something to do with who stays and who goes, it ultimately comes down to two main factors: water and money. The survivors will likely need senior water rights and money to spend on planting high-value orchards or implementing expensive technology.

Economically, California remains the largest agricultural producer in the United States. But El Niño’s precipitation not withstanding, the prolonged drought is putting some farmers under heavy duress, and no one is sure how far California’s Eden will sink.


California, like much of the United States, was losing farmers long before the current drought began. The number of principal operators shrank 4 percent from about 81,000 in 2007 to 78,000 in 2012, according to the most recent U.S. Census of Agriculture. The average age of California farmers skews slightly older than the rest of the nation, at 60 years old, and the state has experienced a decline in the number of farms, reflecting a national trend.

Yet the market value of its output has grown to roughly $54 billion annually. While a mere drop in the bucket of California’s $2.2 trillion economy, this sector remains among the most productive in the world, thanks to the state’s Mediterranean climate and fertile soil. And the Central Valley—a 450-mile-long stretch of flat land through the middle of the state that encompasses parts of 19 counties and multiple watersheds—produces nearly half of the nation’s vegetables, fruit and nuts. California has accomplished this even though most of its precipitation happens in the north, while most of its agriculture occurs in the south.

However, the state’s major reservoirs remain below normal for February, although their levels have dramatically improved since last December. Historically, a strong El Niño means most precipitation occurs in January, February and March. Too much rain at once won’t help farmers and could cause flooding, and it will do little to replenish the state’s drained aquifers. There is a positive note, however: The California Department of Water Resources’ semi-annual snow survey this winter, on Feb. 2, measured snowpack at 130 percent of normal in one location. Statewide, the snowpack is at 114 percent of average, which is the highest it’s been since 2011. That snow will eventually melt into streams and reservoirs, providing water for farms and cities. In normal years, the snowpack supplies about 30 percent of the state’s water needs.

In July 2014, a report by researchers at the University of California at Davis made headlines with alarming news about the drought’s impacts. Researchers projected it would cause $1.5 billion in economic losses to agriculture—factoring in crop revenue, dairy and livestock value, and the cost of additional groundwater pumping—and the loss of 7,500 jobs directly related to farm production by the year’s end. In their latest report, the Davis researchers estimate $1.84 billion in economic losses to agriculture and 10,100 fewer agriculture jobs in 2015.

Yet for all that, California agriculture has demonstrated impressive resilience. Researchers at the Pacific Institute, in Oakland, analyzed drought’s impacts on the three major crop categories of field crops, vegetables and melons, and fruits and nuts, and found that California agriculture not only survived; it flourished overall, achieving both record-high crop revenue and record-high employment.

Crop revenue has increased steadily over the past 15 years, and 2013 was the highest ever at $34 billion; 2014 was the second highest (although it dipped slightly). Revenue has increased even as land was fallowed at high rates. A follow-up report, incorporating livestock, dairy and nursery data, found the same patterns of high levels of productivity and profitability through this drought.

Meanwhile, agricultural employment has grown every year since 2010, employing a record-setting 417,000 people in 2014. But employment in the San Joaquin Valley waned.

“It is important to note that statewide and even regional estimates can hide local variability,” the report’s authors wrote. “State agricultural revenue and employment remain high, but there are undoubtedly winners and losers.”

Excessive groundwater pumping is a major issue.

“In my mind, there is an intergenerational equity issue here,” says Heather Cooley of the Pacific Institute. Future generations’ ability to meet their farming needs has been compromised—groundwater will sink to greater depths; water quality will deteriorate; and wells could run dry. Infrastructure such as conveyance canals, roads, bridges and buildings will suffer.

“Our overdependence on groundwater is tenuous and not sustainable by any stretch of the imagination. (Farmers) recognize that,” says Scott Stoddard, a row-crop farm adviser in the Central Valley for the University of California Cooperative Extension. Underground aquifers took thousands of years to fill up and can’t be replenished at the current rates of withdrawal.

Another resiliency factor relates to improved water efficiency and crop-shifting. “Together, these two are enabling farmers to get the most out of the water that they have,” Cooley says. Farmers aren’t flooding fields as much and are using scientific data and technology to better pinpoint when, where and how much to irrigate. They are shifting away from growing cotton and corn, concentrating water instead on higher-value crops, including almonds, pistachios, wine grapes, tomatoes and fruit. But permanent crops such as trees and orchards can’t be easily fallowed, and that reduces the flexibility to respond to future water shortages. Short-term water transfers between willing sellers and buyers provide a third major reason for resiliency. But regulators lack a complete understanding of how much water is actually changing hands, because informal farmer-to-farmer sales—the kind that happen over coffee at the local diner—aren’t tracked.

When considering how California agriculture has withstood the drought—increased groundwater pumping, water transfers, a shift from field crops to higher-value nuts and fruits, better irrigation techniques, fallowing land—many of the same strategies used in previous, albeit more modest, water shortages emerge. But, Stoddard wonders: “What happens if what we’re seeing is not a drought, but the norm?”


Nonstop pressures threaten California agriculture: encroaching development; the high cost of farm and ranchland, which prices out new farmers and ranchers; onerous regulations; declining interest in the profession; water shortages; and climate change. Greater climate variability may be the state’s new reality, but that doesn’t mean the end is near.

“I think California will remain a great place to grow food and other agricultural products,” Cooley says. “One of the reasons we’ve seen high levels of agriculture development in the state is because we tend to have a dry summer, (and) when water is available, it allows farmers to manipulate the water and use it with precision.”

Another reason is that for decades, the Central Valley’s Westlands Water District has managed to pull a lot of water for farmers near Fresno. But even the powerful water utility has struggled under the current drought and state water restrictions. It remains to be seen whether it can politically pull more water as the drought continues. In the meantime, farmers are handling the crisis the way they always have: through resiliency.

Daniel Sumner, an agricultural economist at UC Davis and co-author of the economic-projection reports, says this isn’t the first time farmers have switched up crops, nor will it be the last. California used to be among the biggest wheat-producing states in the United States, and that’s no longer the case.

“California agriculture adapts continuously to markets and other shifts,” Sumner says. “The gradual move from field crops to more tree and vine crops and vegetables has been ongoing for decades. This drought has caused some temporary shifts, such as leaving rice land idle, and perhaps accelerated the long-term trends.”

Adaptation is nothing new to agriculture, but that offers little consolation to the individual farmers tasked with growing much of the nation’s food. Sure, the sector may be doing all right, but that doesn’t mean some farmers, farmworkers and their families aren’t suffering. This is especially true of farmers with junior water rights, who have had to shell out lots of money to access water, and in areas of extensive fallowing, which means fewer jobs for farmworkers. Sixty-five percent of California’s farms earn less than $50,000 annually. These farms are small, and likely more vulnerable to threats such as drought. Only 8 percent of farms fall into the highest economic class, making more than $1 million.

Increasingly, adult children find the prospect of an air-conditioned office job in a city more appealing than taking over such a harsh family business. Drought’s indirect impacts will compound agriculture’s other pressures, but won’t be realized for several years, if not decades. “It’s a very strong possibility in the future that we’re looking at an exodus of more and more people, if this lack-of-water situation continues,” Stoddard says. “We are using more water than the system allows, and something has to give.”

What will “give,” as Stoddard says, are farmers with exorbitant water bills, or those who just can’t make their operations work anymore.


If California’s agriculture is going to thrive, policymakers need to ensure better management of groundwater resources and stop underpricing water. A comprehensive statewide agriculture plan could help. So will continued improvements in agricultural practices: conservation; transitioning to drip irrigation; using cover crops and no-tillage for better soil health and reduced water usage; employing GPS and possibly drones to pinpoint inefficiencies in irrigation; and funding plant science where genetic engineering could help crops withstand drought.

Farmers with the most resources will have the best chance of surviving. Cannon Michael is a sixth-generation farmer whose ancestor Henry Miller, of Miller and Lux Co., once owned the area that’s now the town of Firebaugh. Michael inherited senior water rights, which gives him a safety net in this current drought. His business, Bowles Farming Co., brings in an average of $25 million in annual gross revenue, but he still worries about the future.

“Our good years are never going to be as good, and our bad years have the potential to be catastrophic,” he says.

His response has been to adapt. Historically, Bowles has grown almonds, pistachios, wheat, corn, alfalfa, cotton, tomatoes, onions and melons on 10,500 irrigated acres—but the drought pushed Michael to fallow one-fourth of his ground and stop irrigating alfalfa. He reduced labor needs, installed drip irrigation and transitioned to reduced-tillage to save money on gasoline. This summer, he made a multimillion dollar investment in the installation of two solar arrays that will generate 1 megawatt of power, enough to supply electricity for nearly the whole operation, including the office, shop, houses (his and the workers) and all drip-irrigation systems. Michael is also diversifying with a new 5,000-acre farm in Uruguay, where he will grow wheat, sorghum, soybeans and corn and raise 1,000 cattle.

South America may beckon as a new agrarian frontier, but Michael, like many of his peers, refuses to give up on California yet. A few years ago, he bought a struggling young almond orchard, excited by its status as a high-value crop. He says there’s not much to be excited about with farming nowadays, but raising the almonds was something that brought him hope.

On a summer afternoon in 2015, before the orchard’s inaugural harvest, Michael plucks an almond off the branch, picks out the seed and takes a bite. Fresh from a tree, almonds taste different: wetter with a hint of vanilla. “Can you be proud of trees?” he asks, closely admiring one of the leaves. “I’m proud of these trees.”

Reporting for this story was supported by an award from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

Though the super El Niño bearing down on California may help alleviate the state’s crippling drought, even a good drenching won’t wash away four dry years.

For nearly a half-decade, the watery foundation that underpins so many California institutions—almonds and salmon, weed and dairy, the Salton Sea and Los Angeles itself—has wobbled under the weight of mismanagement, our national hunger for fresh produce and climate change. As the writer Lauren Markham put it: “California is a great, slick hustler at the card table, bluffing a myth of plenty while holding tight the fan of truth: We are now, and have been for the entirety of modern history, running out of water.”

The drought has inspired plenty of great journalism, but some truths only literature can reveal. Enter Claire Vaye Watkins’ new novel, Gold Fame Citrus, which captures the moment at which California’s bluff has been called. Set in a drought-stricken near future, Gold Fame Citrus tracks a feckless young couple, Luz and Ray, who squat in the ruined home of a vanished starlet, drinking syrupy ration cola and paying exorbitant prices for black-market blueberries. Beyond the crumbling walls, nature lies in chaos; Luz is treated to “scorpions coming up through the drain, a pair of mummified frogs in the waterless fountain, a coyote carcass going wicker in the ravine.” At least there’s no traffic on the 101.

The plot takes off when Luz and Ray adopt a creepy child and try to get out of Dodge. Yet the real pleasure lies not in the What, but in the surreal Where. The landscape has come to be dominated by a “vast tooth-colored superdune in the forgotten crook of the wasted West,” its height rivaling Denali, that marches across the state with malevolent purpose. The desiccated wasteland is purportedly inhabited by a newly evolved menagerie: incandescent bats, land eels and sand krill. Mutant mole people roam nuclear waste disposal sites.

Watkins’ evocation of the drought, and society’s feeble attempts to ameliorate it, unspools with chilling authenticity. In Gold Fame Citrus’ afflicted future, engineers drag glaciers down from Alaska, erect vast retaining walls to repel airborne sand, drill “three thousand feet into the unyielding earth, praying for aquifer but deliver(ing) only hot brine.” Los Angeles, a thirsty Kraken, builds “new aqueducts, deeper aqueducts, aqueducts stretching to the watersheds of Idaho, Washington, Montana, aqueducts veining the West, half a million miles of palatial half-pipe left of the hundredth meridian.”

If that sounds improbably grandiose, consider that this fictional plan is only half as loony as some of the real-world ideas California has entertained. Hell, consider the Central Valley Project.

Gold Fame Citrus is the latest addition to a nascent genre dubbed “cli-fi”: science fiction, often dystopian, that confronts the environmental and social impacts of climate change. The cli-fi canon is diverse and growing, from Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, a delicate study of an errant flock of monarch butterflies, to Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow, an actuarial thriller (seriously) about consulting firms that profit off storms. The pantheon grows with each passing year: 2015 saw the publication of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife alongside the release of the latest iteration of Mad Max, disaster porn set in the deserts of Australia.

As The New Yorker’s Kathryn Schulz has observed, weather no longer serves as backdrop to our stories; increasingly, it is the story.

Climate change certainly provides fertile ground for literature. Its worst symptoms—floods, fires, die-offs, insect plagues—are so cataclysmic, they make the Old Testament look banal. You can hardly blame a novelist or screenwriter for using those phantasmagoric hazards as plot devices. Think, for example, of Interstellar, which conjures a Dust Bowl redux as an excuse to launch Matthew McConaughey into space.

Yet climate change is fundamentally a public policy problem, and thus the most valuable cli-fi not only transports and terrifies; it illuminates and instructs. As Bill Chameides, former dean of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, put it, “The thing that makes dystopian fiction so intriguing, at least to me… is the social science aspect—the author’s vision of how humanity chooses to organize and cope in the post-apocalyptic world.”

And that’s precisely why Gold Fame Citrus is so necessary. In Watkins’ novel, climate change is not merely a backdrop against which to stage Mad Max-ish post-apocalyptic hijinks. Rather, how people “organize and cope,” to use Chameides’ words, is the driving question in Watkins’ novel. This is literature not only as humble escape, but as chilling meditation on pending social havoc.

The nail that Gold Fame Citrus hits most squarely on the head is its treatment of refugees. Like Children of Men, another dystopian work that grapples with large-scale human migration, Gold is not optimistic about our ability to compassionately manage the displaced. The refugees fleeing California, slapped with the dehumanizing label “Mojavs,” are forced into makeshift underground detainment centers, packed into labor camps, and barred from relocating to the moist paradise of Washington. Bureau of Land Management officers patrol the desert, locking up wanderers like stray dogs.

If this sounds familiar, well, that’s the point. This country is currently hot with anti-immigrant fever, and while it’s easy to blame Donald Trump, culpability may lie with even larger forces: The Syrians now seeking sanctuary in some Western states were likely dislocated in part by climate change. A study published in March 2015 found that Syria’s conflict was exacerbated by the catastrophic drought that destroyed agriculture in that country’s breadbasket. “Severe droughts such as the recent one,” wrote author Colin Kelley, “were two to three times more likely to occur under the effects of climate change than in its absence.”

As other  refugees inevitably follow Syria’s, global warming will test not only the integrity of our infrastructure but the bounds of our humanity. And that’s where fiction proves its value: It activates our empathy by forcing us to inhabit an unfamiliar skin—the skin, say, of a refugee.

That skin may not remain unfamiliar for long. Sooner or later, this country will have its own migrants, fleeing from drowning communities in Alaska, wildfire-scorched towns around Western states, and eventually, perhaps, drought-ravaged California. Gold Fame Citrus exists to show us how—and how not—to treat the climate refugees to come, as well as the ones already knocking at our doors.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Gold Fame Citrus

By Claire Vaye Watkins

Riverhead

352 pages, $27.95

Published in Literature

Last summer, as California was struggling through its most severe year of the recent drought, two California members of Congress unveiled legislation meant to ease the pain.

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Republican Rep. David Valadao introduced, separately and respectively, the California Emergency Drought Relief Act of 2015 and the Western Water and American Food Security Act of 2015. Though both are aimed primarily at their home state, the bills’ scope is West-wide.

Both seek more federal money for new water storage and infrastructure projects. Both would expedite environmental review of those projects, and maximize water supply for farms and communities. And both “contain provisions that could alter the implementation of the Endangered Species Act and, in some cases, potentially set a precedent for how federal agencies address endangered and threatened species,” according to the Congressional Research Service. Those precedents include limiting federal agencies’ ability to manage stream flows for endangered fish. 

Beyond these similarities, the bills take wildly different paths. Feinstein’s bill (preferred by environmentalists) focuses on water recycling and desalination; Valadao’s focuses on squeezing more from rivers. Still, as summer stretched into fall with little relief for sun-blasted California, there was hope the two could find common ground. More than 100 farm groups and water authorities signed a letter in October asking Congress to compromise. Environmental groups—despite their opposition to the endangered species implications—agreed something needed to be done.

Yet the year ended without any progress.

Not only were Feinstein and Valadao’s bills caught up in political bickering; Congress also failed to pass any of the six or so other drought relief bills introduced by Western lawmakers. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, never introduced the comprehensive drought package at which she’d hinted.

On Jan. 11, the U.S. Senate reconvened. Despite El Niño’s recent snow and rain, the drought will march on. Lawmakers in 2016 will be faced with the same challenges they failed to address in 2015: securing water for agriculture and communities. Planning for a drier, more-populous future. Protecting water-dependent fish and wildlife. Will they do any better?

Jimmy Hague, director of the Center for Water Resources with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, is skeptical. If Congress wasn’t able to reach a compromise in 2015, why would 2016 be any different?

“It is really difficult to get consensus on water legislation,” Hague says. “All the controversy between those two bills still exists, and now we’ve added a presidential election year on top of it.”

Nonetheless, Hague thinks that Western water woes will get a helping hand from the feds in 2016. That’s because there are at least 20 measures that agencies can implement without congressional action. Many were detailed in a list of recommendations that the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy submitted to the White House last summer—around the same time Feinstein and Valadao were unveiling their bills. 

Compared to the controversial congressional legislation, the list didn’t exactly grab headlines. While legislation calls for desalination plants and dam-building, the conservation groups’ ideas include things like allowing the Internal Revenue Service to include “water donations” as a tax write-off, and encouraging the Bureau of Reclamation to fill and draw down reservoirs based on actual conditions rather than set-in-stone calendar dates.

Still, while Congress’ plans have stalled, these smaller administrative solutions may be gaining traction. Several were implemented in 2015, including an expansion of the Bureau of Reclamation’s “WaterSMART” program. Among other things, WaterSMART grants have been used to reduce leakage in aging irrigation canals. That keeps more water in rivers for fish and wildlife. A project on Montana’s Sun River saved 10,000 acre-feet of water annually.

Hague believes that the Obama administration will keep quietly plugging away at similar drought resilience projects in 2016 — stuff that doesn’t get much attention, but could have big impacts. And lawmakers, for their part, say they’re committed to doing better. Nine Western senators, both Democrat and Republican, wrote a letter asking Murkowski (who chairs the committee though which all drought bills must pass) not to give up on drought negotiations. Murkowski’s spokesman, Michael Tadeo, wrote that the senator has no plans to do so: Drought is among her top priorities for the year. 

Yet in a Congress where snowballs are held up to disprove global warming, there are fears that this winter’s rain and snow might derail progress on drought negotiations.

“There’s been this pattern,” Hague says. “There’s a drought, and people freak out about it and work on solutions, and then it rains, and they forget about it. And then the cycle repeats itself.”

Krista Langlois is a correspondent at High Country News, where this story first appeared.

Published in Environment

Wallace Stegner (1987): “The West is defined, that is, by inadequate rainfall. … We can’t create water or increase the supply. We can only hold back and redistribute what there is.”

In the 19th century, as settlers moved West, the gold seekers got most of the attention and publicity. But more of settlers traveled West for a less exciting reason—to farm.

In many cases, it never occurred to them that the land might not be suitable for the purpose. Some reports reached the East about desert lands, but they circulated mostly in educated circles. More common was talk of the fertility of Oregon, California and other places. Besides, farming increased rainfall.

As white settlement moved West, the federal government sent four survey parties to case the joint. Led by Clarence King (1867-78), George Wheeler (1872-79), Ferdinand Hayden (1867-78) and John Wesley Powell (1869-1879), they took scientific approaches to their work.

The experience of Powell in trying to give the public reliable information on the West and water, and Congress’ effort to discredit science, provided an early model that politicians follow to this day.

John Wesley Powell was not the usual dashing explorer type. Relatively short, he lost a forearm in the Civil War. After the war, he was a natural sciences professor and later became curator of the Illinois Natural History Society Museum. But to a populace that did not usually see their heroes, he was dashing enough.

He and the nine men he led launched in four boats onto the Green River in Wyoming on May 24, 1869, joining the Colorado River downstream. In Utah, they lost provisions, some instruments and one of the boats. On Aug. 5, they entered the Grand Canyon. Rapids nearly ended the expedition, and the party became divided and demoralized. It split up, with three departing to die on the trail. The rest continued with Powell, and they reached what is now the site of Lake Mead, where he called the journey a halt.

Two years later, Powell led an 11-person crew on another exploration, this one lasting 17 months. He began writing about the expeditions and became first director of the Smithsonian’s Bureau of Ethnology, and was then U.S. Geological Survey director from 1881 to 1894. He was in a position to influence public policy on much of what he and the other scientists in his parties had learned in the West.

Report of the Exploration of the Columbia River of the West and Its Tributaries was published in 1875. It was not what the members of Congress, who had funded the surveys, were expecting. Nor was Powell’s subsequent report, Lands of the Arid Region of the United States (1878), which contained an objectionable adjective right in its title.

Senators from Western states already admitted to the union—California, Nevada, Colorado, Oregon—were disbelieving. How could they attract new settlers and businesses to their states if they were described as arid—much less as deserts? Territories—the Dakotas, Montana, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah—had similar concerns.

The arid region, according to Powell’s reports, begins about midway in the Great Plains and extends across the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Powell pulled in most of the area where rainfall was less than 20 inches. He wasn’t wrong—but his reality did not fit the image of the West that had been created in the East.

Powell wanted planning that avoided the disruption of communities and made the best use of water for the largest number of settlers—not for the large ranches and farm operators.

New arrivals who were allowed to choose from any public lands would likely settle along rivers—that is, in flood plains—or on land with low productivity at high elevations that would gobble three or four times more water than more fertile land in the valleys. The rampant fraud that accompanied the Homestead Act—doghouses built on homesteads by phantom settlers to satisfy the residence requirement in order to obtain the water allotment for larger operations—was another of Powell’s targets. He proposed that settlers choose their lands from those designated irrigable, not from any public lands. In one stroke, large monopolies would have been dealt a blow, and the success rates of families would have risen dramatically.

But small farming families do not fund U.S. House campaigns or provide the money for bribery in an era when U.S. senators were appointed by state legislators.

Nevada’s U.S. Sen. William Stewart had initially supported Powell, co-sponsoring a study of whether Powell’s agency should inventory what public lands were and were not irrigable. The two men traveled in the Middle Border territories together—and the trip did not irrigate the relationship. They addressed the North Dakota constitutional convention and other groups, and became better acquainted with one another’s views.

Thereafter, Stewart emerged as a fierce critic. Stewart, a mining lawyer with dubious ethics who believed the West was there to be plundered—preferably by his big-business cronies—supported irrigation, but not necessarily rules and niceties.

Powell, with 20 years of experience in the West to draw on, filed reports filled with terms like arid and desert, terms that grated on the sensibilities of congressmembers:

“In very low altitudes and latitudes the grasses are so scant as to be of no value; here the true deserts are found. These conditions obtain in southern California, southern Nevada, southern Arizona and southern New Mexico, where broad reaches of land are naked of vegetation, but in ascending to the higher lands the grass steadily improves. … In addition to the desert lands mentioned, other large deductions must be made from the area of the pasturage lands. … If the filling of the streams and the rise of the lake were due to a transient extreme of climate, that extreme would be followed by a return to a mean condition, or perhaps by an oscillation in the opposite direction, and a large share of the fields now productive would be stricken by drought and returned to the desert. … Near to the mountains the grass lands are fair but they have been overpastured and greatly injured. Out among the Basin Ranges little grass land of value is found. … Their streams are spent before the summer comes; and only a few springs are perennial. The result is a general desert, dotted by a few oases.”

Powell recommended that Congress withdraw all public lands “of the arid region from ’sale, entry, settlement, or occupation,’ except those selected as irrigable lands, and to allow titles to irrigable lands to be acquired only through the operation of the homestead laws and the desert-land laws.”


U.S. Sen. Gideon Moody/1890: “Of course, I have got a great respect for scientifically educated gentlemen, and I am always very much interested in their researches and all that, but …”

When congressional hearings were held on the Powell reports, they were rough for him. Wallace Stegner later wrote, “They wanted to know who had defined the ’arid region,’ and implied that it was a fiction of Powell’s own, designed to get him extra powers.”

U.S. Sen. Gideon Moody of South Dakota, a lawyer from Deadwood, asked about wells as a source of irrigation. Wheeler candidly said all the artesian wells in South Dakota could irrigate only a single county. Away went Moody’s support for science—and for Powell.

Some of the 19th century legislators decided there must be alternatives to Powell who would tell them what they wanted to hear—just as 20th-century tobacco industry and 21st-century Republicans, when confronted with unfavorable science, went shopping for different scientists. There were takers—not many, because Powell’s science was sound. But cherry-picking is the name of this game, and enough rent-a-scientists and rivals of Powell could be found.

Thus came rain-follows-the-plow. According to a pseudo-science of the time, if land was plowed and cultivated, rainfall would increase. We are not making this up. The term was coined by Charles Dana Wilber, who wrote:

“Suppose (a section of farmers) 50 miles, in width, from Manitoba to Texas, could acting in concert, turn over the prairie sod, and after deep plowing and receiving the rain and moisture, present a new surface of green growing crops instead of dry, hard baked earth covered with sparse buffalo grass. No one can question or doubt the inevitable effect of this cooling condensing surface upon the moisture in the atmosphere as it moves over by the Western winds. A reduction of temperature must at once occur, accompanied by the usual phenomena of showers. … To be more concise, Rain follows the plow.”

In addition, Powell had his rivals, and congressmembers gave them forums to smear Powell and/or just to spread a less reliable version of science. Paleontologist/ichthyologist Edward Cope planted nasty stories about Powell in a New York newspaper.

After Powell’s death years later, his geographer colleague, William M. Davis, would write, “Powell’s large share in promoting a correct knowledge of the arid parts of the United States and their possible utilization will not be realized by readers today unless they recall the time when so much was said about taking the words ’Great American Desert’ off the map.”

But Stewart and company did not represent all congressional sentiment and in 1888, Congress closed public lands to settlement until Powell’s agency could classify the lands of the West as irrigable or otherwise.

But the West was a big place, and lawmakers like Stewart wanted the classification of lands done yesterday. Powell estimated it would take six to seven years to complete. There were speculators, rainmakers and others of more serious intent who were not willing to wait. As the years passed, pressure built on members of Congress to throw open the public domain. When they were pressured, they needed someone to blame. Powell was handy.

Just as current lawmakers attack Barack Obama for using the power Congress gave him to create national monuments, legislators were soon blaming Powell for the moratorium on settling public lands they had enacted. They found other grounds on which to make a case against him, too. He believed in small farms, because it appeared that no more than 20 percent of the public lands were irrigable, and he considered it criminal to let people settle on plots “where they cannot maintain themselves.” Nor was Powell as susceptible to influence as congressmembers. “It is to be borne in mind that this survey is not primarily designed for the benefit of private person,” he wrote. Of couse, he considered rain-follows-the-plow nonsense.

But members of Congress were losing their patience, and they finally repealed the closure of public lands before Powell’s work was complete. The public domain was thrown open to however anyone wanted to use it.

As “private persons” tried to make irrigation work in the West, the West became littered with failed irrigation projects. One was headed by Francis Newlands, a Californian whose political career had stagnated here. He turned to Nevada for better luck after marrying money. He lost about a half million of it on his Truckee Irrigation Project, deciding thereafter that the public’s money was needed for desert reclamation—“reclaiming” the desert for agriculture. In 1902, as a U.S. House member from Nevada, he won passage of the Reclamation Act. The Act provided for the kind of farms that might succeed in the wet and fertile East—160 acres (320 for a married couple).


Leah J. Wilds, Danny A. Gonzales and Glen S. Krutz/1994: “And finally, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation water is among the most inexpensive (at least for irrigated agriculture), highly subsidized, and inefficiently used water in the American West.”

Some projects, such as construction of the Hoover Dam, require government aid, because so much capital is needed that private companies cannot accomplish it. But it should have occurred to someone that the reason commercial irrigation projects failed was not that they were underfinanced, but that most of them simply didn’t work or make profits—meaning that a government program would face the same problem. It might also have prompted officials to start with model projects and see what worked and what didn’t. Instead, within days of the enactment of the Act, five projects were announced in five states—followed by dozens more. Within a decade, the program was bankrupt.

The money troubles didn’t slow reclamation down. Congress pumped a loan from the treasury into the act, keeping it alive. In 20 years, the loan was unpaid, and most projects were losing money.

As the reclamation projects failed, they drifted along on federal loans, interest exemptions, subsidies and extended payment periods. Eventually, the federal government started building often unnecessary hydroelectric dams to generate revenue to pay for the money-losing reclamation projects. As the projects piled up, the pool of red ink became wider and deeper, which is more than could be said of the water that fed them. Western farmers were being subsidized to grow crops that Eastern farmers were being paid not to grow. In fact, if the West had more rivers, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers might have bankrupted the United States of America.

As competition for dam-building grew between the two federal dam building agencies, dam building took on a life of its own. (It’s not clear why two agencies were allowed to perform the work.) Hundreds of dams went up, and slowly, likely sites for dams dwindled. Possible uses for dams—water supply, irrigation, flood control, hydroelectricity—became satisfied.

Yet the dam-building went on—not for any particular reason, except dam-building itself. It became a bureaucratic perpetual-motion machine. Internal federal paperwork later disclosed showed the worthlessness and lack of necessity of dams built.

Worse, dams became part of doing business in Congress—“a kind of currency,” water historian Marc Reisner wrote in 1986. Congress had literally become unable to function without water projects to trade.

Many of these dam projects, because of the massive surfaces of the reservoirs, wasted through evaporation the water they were supposed to conserve.

“Excessive reservoir storage increases consumptive losses in the form of evaporation and seepage,” author John Weisheit wrote. “Over-developing the watershed with numerous diversions and reservoirs also decreases the quality of the water by loading the river water with salt and heavy metals.”

We hear about the evaporation that results from lawn-watering, but not the evaporation that results from huge storage reservoirs built to keep a failing program alive. In 1962, the Interior Department analyzed and approved four huge water projects—Glen Canyon, Flaming Gorge, Curecanti and Navajo—by intentionally excluding from its calculations the terrific wastage of water in evaporation from the surface of their reservoirs.

To keep getting more welfare for their constituents, the successors of the lawmakers who denied that the West was arid asked for the sympathy of their colleagues—on the grounds that the Western farmers were developing land that was arid.


Former U.S. commissioner of reclamation Dan Beard/2015: “I mean it costs us $100 to deliver an acre foot of water, and we charge the farmers $2.”

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter tried to get the program under control by cutting off money for 19 water projects. Congress erupted in an uproar, with Carter’s fellow Democrats leading the charge, though Republicans were still heard from. Enough Democrats stood by Carter to make a veto fight of it—and then Carter caved in.

However weak his leadership was, it was Carter who was on the side of history. Once he pulled the curtain back, dam-building never had its same sacrosanct standing again, and the environmental movement’s growing influence, together with wildly rising construction costs, eventually put an end to the era of dam building. There would still be occasional dams built, but the frenzied annual monsoon of water projects that Congress once disgorged was facing a sharp decline—and some already existing dams would start coming down.

But the anti-scientific techniques that have kept water wastage in the West alive for more than a century have now been turned to use in promoting the continuing deterioration of climate.

A 2013 study from University of Nevada, Reno hydrologist Thomas Myers, published in the Journal of the American Water Resources Association indicates that just one artificial federal lake loses up to 380,000 acre-feet of water each year.

Its name? Lake Powell.

This piece was originally published in the Reno News & Review.

Published in Features

When John Fleck began covering water (among other things) in 1995 for New Mexico’s Albuquerque Journal, he assumed he’d be writing stories about dried-out wells and cracked mud. After all, as a Los Angeles native who grew up in a suburb that replaced an irrigated citrus orchard, he’d grown up reading books like A River No More, by Philip Fradkin, and Cadillac Desert, by Marc Reisner—essential reading for water nerds.

As a journalist, he went looking for the kinds of stories these authors promised: stories of “conflict, crisis and doom.” But he found a very different narrative, and after nearly 30 years spent covering some of the most pressing water issues in the West, Fleck is now writing a book, which is due to be published by Island Press next year.

He recently talked about the dilemma water journalists face these days—and why the West’s water problems aren’t as bad as we think.

What led you to the water beat?

My first daily newspaper job was with the Pasadena Star-News in the mid-’80s, and I covered water there, in addition to other things. But water seemed more interesting than anything else, because water is where human communities spring from and evolve around. Not only that; I grew up in a place that, like many places in the West, didn’t have much water. In Los Angeles, for instance, there was this audacious experiment to bring water in. They built these massive artificial rivers. So L.A. is organized around water, but in that really weird and interesting way.

Where did the idea for your book come from?

The thesis is that when it comes to our perception of water in the West, we’ve inherited this narrative of crisis, conflict and doom, from literature of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, and especially from Cadillac Desert. Growing up reading those books, I really embraced that narrative. I thought that was our story—that we were headed for this great crash, because we’d made the mistakes that Reisner wrote about.

But that’s not what you found?

When I came to New Mexico, which is a mostly desert state living on the edge of its water supply, I kept looking for those stories that showed people running out of water. But over and over, I found communities instead showing a lot more adaptive capacity than, I think, the traditional narrative gave them credit for. Albuquerque’s water use, for instance, is close to half what it was per capita in the mid ’90s. We’ve grown a bunch and are using less water than we were 30 years ago. And I saw these farm communities—which are really strong cultural underpinnings of the West—who have adapted to use less water.

It took me a long time to come around to the idea that people have actually succeeded in using less water. And how do communities do that? That’s really what my book is about—how do these places use less water and still succeed in being the kind of communities they want to be, in the midst of this pretty remarkable change?

What are some of those success stories?

Las Vegas is a great example of success. A decade ago, it was using 325,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water, and now it’s using 225,000 acre-feet, while its population has increased by 35 percent. They’ve recognized that the water supply is finite, and that if they want to grow, they have to do it with less. Of course, one of the fair criticisms could be that one of the options for Las Vegas is the city should stop growing, but we allow communities to define their own goals. And Las Vegas wanted to grow.

And yet there are people in California whose water supply has run out. Does that undermine your thesis at all?

No. So here’s the interesting thing: If you look at the places in California where the water has run out, it’s poor, rural communities like East Porterville and Monson in the Central Valley—where, for decades, they’ve over-pumped groundwater for agriculture. Now they’re getting slammed because many people rely on shallow wells, and they don’t have the money to drill deeper wells. It’s really a poverty problem, exposed by drought.

We’ve seen this in New Mexico, too. I did a piece in the Albuquerque Journal that looked at the drought of 2002 and 2003. There were lots of small rural towns where wells were running dry. The state of New Mexico and the federal government looked at the underlying causes and invested a lot of money into things like better well protection, drilling more wells and interconnecting neighboring water systems.

So 2014-2015 comes along, and you had far fewer places running out of water. To me, that shows there is potential to help these communities in California that don’t have the resources to deal with this problem on their own.

So the pictures of cracked mud and dry wells don’t really tell the full story, but they tell the story people want to read. Do they also galvanize people in a way that less-apocalyptic pictures wouldn’t?

It’s such a problem. We are so incentivized by the apocalyptic, and the apocalyptic helps galvanize action. I don’t know the solution to this. But I do know that one of the things that’s really missing from California drought journalism right now is that in story after story, reporters go to East Porterville and places like it and talk about how they’re running out of water. There are almost no stories where reporters go to communities that haven’t run out of water, and look at how they succeeded at coping with these problems.

So where does that leave journalists who thrive on that doomsday narrative?

I think there is value to the cracked-mud pictures, but you have to offer hope to people for how these problems can be overcome. That doesn’t mean just writing happy, feel-good stories; it means finding a little more balance in the narratives that we share. Because there’s evidence in social science literature that the crisis narrative alone just makes people feel hopeless—that they can’t do anything about it. And this is one of the problems in the whole dialogue with climate change right now.

Are we now entering a post-Cadillac Desert era? Or will the problems identified by Reisner keep dogging us?

I’ll answer two ways, and they’re contradictory. The problems will keep dogging us, because they’re not problems that ever get solved. We’ve built big cities and big farming communities that were all dependent on a water supply that was larger than we actually had—and climate change will shrink it even further. It would be a lot easier if we’d not done the things that Cadillac Desert describes, like building Los Angeles and Las Vegas and Phoenix and Denver and the Imperial Valley and all that farming in central Arizona. But we’ve done that—we have those communities now.

And I don’t think people were villains in the way that Reisner portrayed them. They made mistakes, of course, but they were just doing what you did back then, which was build farms and cities in the desert. That’s what society directed them to do.

The thing that I think Cadillac Desert missed is this transition toward adaptation. Certainly, Reisner’s later writings acknowledge this, and I would argue even as he was finishing the book in the mid-’80s that people were already beginning to recognize and adapt to the scarcity.

Or perhaps the book itself helped spur those very changes?

That’s definitely one possibility. One of my friends who writes about water in California says: “Cadillac Desert is out of date, but that’s because it rendered itself obsolete.” Reisner pointed out what we’d done wrong, and we all smacked our foreheads and said, “We can’t do that anymore.”

Are there places that are still struggling with that transition?

I think in every community, there’s tension between that old way of thinking about water, which just wants to use it all, and the new way of thinking that recognizes conservation. At the regional level, I think the continued talk in Colorado among a lot of people in the populated east side of the state, about the desire to divert more water out of the Colorado River Basin—to meet growing cities on the Front Range—is one place that hasn’t received the message yet: that there isn’t more water to take out, that there’s in fact going to be less.

Looming underneath that attitude is the future presented in The Water Knife, Paolo Bacigalupi’s drought dystopic, which is essentially about water rights in the near-future West.

I love The Water Knife, but it’s a made-up story. It’s one possible pathway. But I don’t think it’s going to happen. I think the things we’re doing show we have the capacity to avoid that future. But it’s a great way of startling us—spoiler alert—with this extreme enforcing of water rights with the helicopters coming out of Las Vegas and blowing up another water user’s treatment plant. I mean, I guess that’s one way of enforcing the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation (laughs). I kind of liked that.

So, in a way, your book is the anti-Water Knife?

Exactly. My book is saying, “Let’s look at how we might take advantage of the steps we’ve already taken in addressing our water problems and create a future for ourselves that we’d really like.” Because if we take the narrative of crisis and conflict to its extreme, we’re going to be sending out squadrons of armed helicopters against our neighbors, and that’s not a West that any of us wants.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

Water is a priority issue in this severe drought. You may wonder: Can we set up an oasis garden in our yard while restricting water usage?

You have choices. By using pots, you will use water more sparingly, as you are watering a very specific area. By being mindful about how much water you supply to your pots, you will average a gallon or two per day for each 20-to-24-inch pot with high water plants, such as flowers, planted in full sun. Medium-water thirsty plants will only need water every other day; low water plants need water every third day, perhaps even less often. Therefore, if you have 10 pots, the most water you use is 20 gallons a day—and that’s if all are planted with water-greedy plants in the full sun.

The average resident in the United States showers for eight minutes, using 17 gallons of water. If you consider some logic here, cutting your shower time in half will let you add four pots to your yard—and not use any more water!

As you would expect, the key to success in your hot desert pots is water. However, 95 percent of plant failures in the desert are caused by inappropriate watering. This includes TOO MUCH WATER! Don’t assume, as a newcomer to the desert that you have to water all of your pots all the time.

Where to Be Cautious With Water Use

Houseplants tend to be loved to death with water. In colder climates, even in the winter, you need to water indoor plants only weekly, and that’s due to dry heating systems. Most “houseplants” can be watered every three to four weeks.

Shaded patio plants also tend to be overwatered. Use a water meter to test how wet the soil is down in the root zone. Most homeowners use their finger to test the top inch, which may very well be dry. But the roots are 6-10 inches below the surface, and that area does not dry out as fast. The amount of wind the plants get will also dictate how fast the soil dries out. If the soil is damp, but the plant is struggling, try blasting the plant itself with water weekly, and misting the leaves now and then.

Potted succulents and cactuses during the hottest seasons may need water weekly; during the more pleasant months of the year, it’s every two weeks. I suggest you see how the plants do if you water even less often; after all, they are desert plants. Watch for wrinkling of the pads or stems to know if you need to increase water.

If you do have your potted plants on irrigation, watch out for plugged pots or errant emitters, as you may find your pot filled with water. If so, with a friend’s help, lean the pot over until you can stick a screwdriver up the drainage hole to relieve the block. The next time you are repotting, empty all of the soil out of that pot, and resolve the problem. It could be root growth from the plant, or a nearby ground plant with its roots growing up into the pot.

All pots do not have to be planted with high-water selections. Consider using plants from the Southwest, along with non-native but desert-friendly plants from the Mediterranean and Africa.

Blooming flowers from many of these plants will attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, and grow together, creating lush landscapes that contradict stereotypes about the desert. Intermingle the occasional flowering annuals like those from “back home,” and regulate the water applied for each type of plants’ needs.

It is important to place plants with like needs together—both in respect to sun and water. Combining shade and sun plants in the same pot, and/or high- and low-water plants, will only result in disaster, perhaps leading you to become one of those newcomers who throws up your hands and says, “You cannot grow anything but cactus in the desert!” Not true—just look at the desert potted garden below.

If you water your pots with an irrigation system, set it to come on about 4 a.m., and water before the lines heat up in the sun. If you are watering by hand, water as close to sunrise as possible. Be sure the water coming out of the hose is not hot, and water pots until the water comes out of the drain hole.

However, only water your potted succulents and cacti when the soil is almost dry. Again, use a water meter to determine this.

Interested in being rewarded for reducing your grassy areas? The Desert Water Agency (DWA) has just relaunched its turf buy back program to encourage residents in the western valley to reduce the amount of living turf they have at homes and businesses. If you are interested in finding out more about this project, visit the DWA website.

Marylee Pangman is the founder and former owner of The Contained Gardener in Tucson, Ariz. She has become known as the desert’s potted garden expert. Marylee’s book, Getting Potted in the Desert, has just been released. Buy it online at potteddesert.com. Email her with comments and questions at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Follow the Potted Desert at facebook.com/potteddesert.

Published in Potted Desert Garden

On July 30, the State Water Resources Control Board issued a press release highlighting the quick success of statewide water-conservation efforts.

“With record-breaking heat throughout much of the state in June, Californians continued to conserve water, reducing water use by 27.3 percent and exceeding Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr.’s 25 percent mandate in the first month that the new emergency conservation regulation was in effect,” the release said.

However, most of the Coachella Valley’s water agencies didn’t conserve as much water as the state wanted.

Among Coachella Valley’s five water districts, the Mission Springs Water District had the least success in June, reporting only a 10 percent decline in usage—missing its 28 percent target by 18.4 percent. The Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) reported a 21 percent decrease in usage—but missed the state’s huge, harsh 36 percent target reduction by 15 percent.

A bit more conservation success was realized by the Indio Water Authority; the agency reported a 26 percent usage decline, but that still fell 5.6 percent short of the targeted 32 percent. The Coachella Water Authority reported a 20 percent decline, 4 percent below the 24 percent target.

By far, the best local June conservation results came from the Desert Water Agency, which exceeded its 36 percent target with a 40 percent decline in usage.

Representatives of the agencies put a positive spin on the numbers.

“We were pretty satisfied with our June number of 21 percent,” said Heather Engel, the Coachella Valley Water District’s director of communications and conservation, “although the state water board criticized us because it was 15 percent away from our goal number of 36 percent. We got some feedback from the state that we might have to do something differently, but we felt that 21 percent was pretty impressive for summer in the Coachella Valley.”

Even more impressive are the CVWD’s July numbers: The district saw a 41 percent decrease, when compared to the same month two years ago. However, the Desert Water Authority’s reduction fell from 40 percent in June to 30 percent in July.

As of our press deadline, July reports were unavailable for the Indio Water Authority, the Coachella Water Authority and the Mission Springs Water District.

Katie Ruark, the DWA public information officer, said her agency wasn’t sure why the 40 percent reduction in June slipped to 30 percent in July.

“We haven’t been able to determine any factual evidence to demonstrate what made the difference between the conservation results in June and July of this year, since it’s only been two days since we reported that information,” she explained. “But we will continue to implement our restrictions and conservation programs to keep the momentum going.”

Ruark did offer some preliminary theories on the difference between the two months: “July was a hotter month in terms of temperatures than June, so that could have been a factor in increased use. Also, it occurs to me that we should look at an increase in tourism rates throughout July, because that could impact the level of usage as well.”

Over at the CVWD, the marked improvement in conservation results obviously pleased Engel. She credited the agency’s public outreach, education programs and rebate programs. “We’ve had this jump in July, and I think that can primarily be attributed to not only the ongoing efforts just mentioned, but that’s when the drought penalties went into effect. That was an additional financial incentive for people to cut back their water use.”

However, the water agencies now find themselves in a curious quandary: As their conservation successes increase, they’re bringing in less money. Does this forebode a rate increase for water customers?

“In July alone, our regular billed water consumption revenue was down by more than $2 million, but we received $1.9 million in new penalty revenue,” CVWD’s Engel said. “We’re hoping to use some of that (penalty) money to further fund our conservation programs, like the turf-buyback program, but I’m not sure if that’s the way it will work, honestly, because our overall revenue is down due to the conservation of water. That penalty funding may be needed to recoup some of that lost revenue.”

Ruark said the Palm Springs-area Desert Water Agency readied itself for the loss in income.

“The DWA, in the preparation of the 2015-2016 fiscal year budget … did prepare for a revenue hit that we knew would result from decreased water use,” she said. “We compensated for that by projecting a $10 million hit, and we deferred capital-improvement projects, and we’ll be taking some money out of our operating reserves to fill that gap. In 2016, we were already scheduled to be doing a rate study, so we’ll be taking a really hard look at both our costs and our rates to determine if our customer rates do need to be adjusted.”

At the east end of the valley, the CVWD’s Engel described the challenge this way. “We do have reserve funds that are specifically designated for use as a rate-stabilization resource. So, when and if we do have a large drop in revenue, we can rely on those funds to be a short term solution. As a result, we are not seriously concerned about the near future.”

There will be no relief forthcoming from the State Water Resources Control Board, which declined to accept appeals and population-data submissions by the DWA and CVWD, which felt the absence of seasonal residents in population statistics skewed the agencies’ per-capita water usage—and resulted in the harsh decrease mandates from the state.

“We did submit our data to them in a memo with backup documentation of our methods,” Ruark said. “They would not accept our conclusions because they felt that we should only include seasonal residents in our winter months’ usage calculations. We explained that those homes are still using water even when the residents themselves are absent, because most of the water usage is on landscaping needs outdoors, and continue regardless. But they declined to accept that premise.”

Published in Environment

Paolo Bacigalupi grew up in Paonia, Colo., where he was on staff at High Country News. He has won the prestigious Hugo and Nebula awards for his writing, and was HCN’s first online editor.

His new book, The Water Knife, grew from a short story he wrote for HCN, “The Tamarisk Hunter.” In his latest novel, Bacigalupi has written a near-future thriller, set in a world where water is scarce, and law is scarcer. Much of humanity is holed up in efficient towers called arcologies; a man named Angel Valasquez, the henchman for a Las Vegas water czar, brutally cuts people away from their water rights. We spoke as we walked along an irrigation ditch above Paonia, its water high from recent rains.

In your future world, what does Paonia look like?

The way I look at Paonia is that it’s built on engineered water. There are a couple of different reservoirs at work, and those engineered pieces of equipment are the way that we maintain our water throughout the dry summers. So what I see is sort of a patchwork of survival, and it’s defined entirely by this other invisible overlay on the valley—which are your legal water rights. All of this depends on the idea that there is legal enforcement and that there is rule of law.

In The Water Knife, that’s breaking down. So in that future, you could very easily see people sitting up on the Paonia dam, saying, “No, we decided that even though there’s a call on the river further down, even though you supposedly have higher rights, we actually sit higher on the river, so we control the water and how much goes down to you.”

Do you feel like you saw the California drought coming when you were starting to write this book?

Statistically, I saw it coming. The climate models say that the South and Southwest should be dead-dry. They’re saying extreme weather is more likely. The statistics are all there. I crafted (this book) to feel near-future. The only future tech that you really see are things that relate to water and water scarcity. That’s deliberate, because you want to feel like this future has relevance to the present—(it’s) not some hypothetical future where you have something like Blade Runner or any other really high-tech science fiction. I’m going to give this to an audience that doesn’t traditionally read science fiction. But I want to do some extrapolation about what water scarcity is, and so we’re going to stay tightly focused on the way we are.

I actually hadn’t felt like I would do any drought stuff or more water or climate change stuff, because I felt like those ideas were out there enough in the zeitgeist, that other people could handle, and I had already done things like “The Tamarisk Hunter,” where I basically explored the core concepts.

It wasn’t until the 2011 drought in Texas, when I was down there seeing these terrible impacts and also seeing this astonishing denial coming from the leadership, that I had this moment where I was like, ‘Wow, I guess this drum needs more beating.’ Rick Perry was praying for rain, and the drought that Texas was experiencing matched climate models. And you’re like: “God didn’t just turn his back on you; this is just us dumping carbon into the atmosphere and making situations like this really statistically likely.” I felt a certain rage, that we were still living in this reality freefall.

Tell me how you settled on a “water knife,” the job of someone who cuts people from their rights, and the relationship between Angel Valasquez and Catherine Case, who’s a sort of Patricia Mulroy type, the queen of the Colorado River.

When you’re writing about things like drought or climate change, or water or water rights, you’re stuck in this abstract, nonvisceral space. Even scarcity gets written about in some weird, cliché ways: Everybody turns upon themselves, and they’ll tear each other down. And you’re like, well, no, there still are government bodies, organizational values, identity politics. And without those specifics, you’ve really written another cliché apocalypse novel.

I wanted to make the legal structure of water rights more apparent. I wanted to make the idea of water scarcity, and how there are cascades of winners and losers, more apparent. Having somebody like Angel Valasquez gives you a way to do that that’s more like a thriller and more fun than if you just have a bunch of lawyers sitting around a table talking about, “We’re going to give these people an extra 50,000 acre-feet of water, and we’re going to engineer this water trade where so-and-so will install a water saline treatment plant in return for giving back X amount of their river allocation”—which doesn’t make for good fiction. Angel’s the action-hero version of water rights.

In this world, Vegas is weak in comparison to California, but it’s smart in comparison to places like Phoenix. Vegas is the city that looked around in this very clear-eyed way and said, “Wait, we have terrible water rights. We only think it’s going to get worse. What do we need to do to buffer ourselves against disaster?” Eventually, Catherine Case, the head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority in the story, says, “You know what? Those subdivisions, they’re wasting money, they’re gone. We’re pulling all the water into our arcologies instead; we’re going to hunker down here.”

How does that play into the idea that we’re better off living in urban areas, where everything’s packed together, and where we can consolidate our resources, like water, rather than live in sprawling communities?

The arcologies are really, really efficient. They’re built to take in things and keep them as long as possible, to recycle all of their waste, to recycle all their water to grow food for themselves, to take advantage of every synergy that they can, of being tightly packed together and very well designed. But they’re also a symptom of a problem, which is the moment that humanity accepts that the world outside is no longer an inviting and supportive and sustaining place for people. So arcologies are also the wrong techno solution to a much bigger problem.

When we say we need big cities because it’s more efficient, it’s like, maybe we need less people. This is a tradition of ours—that we never solve our source problems. We’re never going to say, “Now that there’s climate change, let’s actually tax carbon; let’s really cut back on our coal consumption; let’s tax all of our plane travel hard; let’s actually not add any more heat to the atmosphere.” What we do instead is build arcologies, and we get ready for our devastated future, but we don’t actually avoid our devastated future.

Where’s the optimism in The Water Knife?

A friend of mine told me that I must be an optimist; otherwise, I wouldn’t be so disappointed every time things go wrong. But I think when you look at (climate) data or that Lake Mead just had its lowest levels ever, those are indicators that say we aren’t solving problems. So (injecting optimism) is like setting markers out there that define waypoints toward what might be smart.

The thing that I’m most interested in doing is comparing the outcomes between people who’ve decided to live inside of nostalgia and live inside of denial about their present moment and where the future is taking them—and those people who are going, “I don’t like the look of this stuff. It looks pretty dangerous. I need to make some moves, and I need to be planning.” So the marker that you’re trying to set out there is: People who are reality-based and data-driven survive. Reality-based people, they do a lot better than the people who are living in denial.

This article originally appeared in High Country News.

The Water Knife

By Paolo Bacigalupi

Knopf

384 pages, $25.95

Published in Literature

The board of directors of the Coachella Valley Water District—the agency that provides water to much of the east end of the Coachella Valley—met on Tuesday, May 12, to issue a final set of emergency water usage restrictions.

When it was all over, CVWD customers were facing a much less onerous set of restrictions than residents elsewhere in the valley.

After more than an hour of public comments from an audience of roughly 120 residents and business owners, the CVWD issued mandates including:

  • The watering of outdoor landscapes within 48 hours of measurable rainfall is prohibited.
  • The irrigation of ornamental turf on public street medians is no longer allowed.
  • The use of water in decorative fountains is prohibited unless there is a recirculation system.
  • Restaurants must serve water only on request.
  • Runoff flows from outdoor watering are now a no-no.

However, the CVWD did not follow the lead of the west-side Desert Water Agency (DWA) or the Indio Water Authority (IWA) and place mandatory restrictions on the watering of ornamental landscapes.

Rather, it was “recommended” that CVWD customers continue to water only between sunset and 10 a.m., any day, if they so choose. That’s quite a contrast to the restrictions issued by the other water agencies. The IWA limits landscape irrigation to the hours between 6 p.m., and 6 a.m., on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. The DWA mandated that residential customers can only water Monday, Wednesday and Friday, between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., while commercial, industrial and institutional customers can water on alternate days—but only after they submit a plan approved by agency personnel.

Katie Ruark, the DWA’s public information officer, explained how the DWA board of directors came to the three-days-per-week, mandatory restriction.

“Math,” Ruark said. “We ran some calculations internally to see what we would have to do to reduce overall usage by 36 percent, and knowing that landscape watering accounts for the majority of water use … we knew that we had to cut down to that many days to get where we needed.”

Almost all of the CVWD board’s “restrictions” aren’t restrictions at all, but “recommended activities” in which actions are either “strongly encouraged” or “strongly discouraged.”

“I think the board decided that people need to have flexibility in determining what works best for them,” said CVWD spokeswoman Heather Engel after the meeting. “They set a goal at 36 percent below your budgeted water use amount, and you know we’re not asking every single person or customer to reduce. Some people have already done their part, and they don’t need to do any more. But for the people who are above that threshold, they are saying, ‘You do what you need to do to get your number down.’ So if that means you need to limit your watering, then fine, but maybe there’s somebody else who can get to their number without reducing their watering.”

That flexibility was not offered to DWA and IWA customers.

“Our strategy has been to achieve a community-wide reduction,” said Ruark of the DWA. “And the reason for that is that we know there are people in our community who have put in desertscapes; they’ve taken out their old washer and dryer and put in water-efficient ones; they’ve redone their irrigation systems, and they don’t have a lot of room left to save. We also know that there are people who do have a lot of room to save. So we implemented 13 water-use restrictions, and we’re essentially controlling the way you use water, and not necessarily how much you use.”

There is some hope for all valley residents: The onerous 36 percent total reduction mandated by the state may be rolled back to some lesser amount, thanks to the efforts of the DWA.

As reported previously, the DWA was the only one of the Coachella Valley’s three major water agencies that put in the time and effort to argue for the reduction of the valley’s per-capita water-usage calculation as adopted by the State Water Resources Control Board. Partly as a result of the agency’s explanation as to how the valley’s seasonal and tourist population inflates the water usage that is attributed to the smaller full-time residential community, the state board decided to allow agencies statewide to present revised estimates and supporting data on actual per-capita population totals.

“We’ve been making the comment since 2010, when we did our urban water-management plans, that it was just not accurate for us to use (federal) Census data,” Ruark said. “Other population projections have to be incorporated in this area, because our seasonal population is so significant.”

If the revised and lower per capita numbers are accepted by the State Water Board, that could lessen the target water-usage reduction total.

“This is huge for all the agencies in the Coachella Valley, and we’re very excited that we’ll be able to do that,” Engel said. “Right now, we’re trying to figure out and back up a population number which we think is more accurate. But we’re still confirming our data with as many experts as we can to make sure we can defend it.”

If the state does decrease the target from 36 percent, would usage reduction targets be moved to that lower number?

“I think we would have to go back to the board and see how they want to respond,” Engel said.

As for the DWA, “That is hard to say,” Ruark said. “Our board is open to effectiveness always, but specifically to say would they change the restrictions halfway through the game, I don’t know.”

No matter which Coachella Valley water agency provides you with the valuable natural resource, you should visit the appropriate website and study up on the restrictions from and behaviors allowed by your agency. If you hope to avoid financial repercussions, such as higher-tier rates and/or potential fines—the CVWD has had fines in place for a year now, and the DWA is looking into them—you need to be proactive in observing and managing your water usage.

“We’re not a policing agency,” Engel said. “We’re not going to go crazy with these restrictions and fines. Our goal is to educate people and to assist people.”

For more information, visit www.cvwd.org, www.dwa.org or www.indiowater.org.

Below: The Coachella Valley Water District mandated that customers can’t water within 48 hours of measurable rain. That was one of the few actual restrictions issued by the agency, which instead focused on recommendations. Photo by Kevin Fitzgerald.

Published in Environment

On a recent trip to California, I visited the North Coast, where spring usually means green hills with deep grass, strewn with lupine and bright orange poppies bobbing in sea breezes.

This year, we found stunted grass, browning hills and the local news obsessing over the worst drought in California's recorded history. Suddenly, the most populous state in the country faces a harsh reality, with water shortages threatening all aspects of life, from the economy, to our food supply, to the very livability of our homes.

Holed up in Bodega Bay, I heard Gov. Jerry Brown on the radio talking about mandatory water-use restrictions for California's 39 million people. Brown usually can be counted on to take on issues realistically, yet when asked if he would restrict the amount of water that goes to agriculture, he demurred. Agriculture had suffered enough already, he said.

While we are all grateful to farmers and farm workers—including those in the eastern Coachella Valley—for producing the food we crave, the tough reality of severe drought should compel us to take a closer look at agricultural water use. In America's entrepreneurial environment, we're not used to asking hard questions about legal private-sector activity, but this severe and lingering drought—not only in California, but also throughout the West—could, and should, force a serious debate about private-sector use of public water supplies. It is long overdue.

This may be an uncomfortable process for politicians who will have to consider a difficult balance: water supplies for cities versus water for rural industries, including ones that may not be able to survive in a drying region.

Here are the cold facts: Cities in California use between 10 to 20 percent of the state's developed water, producing 98 percent of its gross domestic product, while agriculture uses 80 percent of the water supply—and produces only 2 percent of the state's GDP. And of the 80 percent that agriculture uses, only a portion is used for crops that directly feed people.

We could drill down deeper and see who is using water and for what, but this is where politicians start squirming, given that farmers produce both crops and campaign contributions. The majority of Colorado River water and agricultural water in California goes to producing feed for cattle—low-value crops like alfalfa and hay. Those crops use 14 million acre-feet of water a year, which is far more than what is used by water-intensive crops like rice, cotton or wine grapes.

Alfalfa is a huge water-waster largely because of its high rates of evapotranspiration, as well as the overall inefficiency of flood irrigation, the main means of watering the crops. Seventy percent of California's alfalfa goes to dairies, which use more than 700 gallons of water per cow, per day, in facilities that have hundreds of cows, usually located in arid parts of the state. The 500,000 beef cattle in California require between 400 and 2,500 gallons of water for each pound of meat, depending on who supplies your statistics.

Of course, California is not the only area facing a drought. In the Rio Grande Basin of Colorado and New Mexico, the same pattern of alfalfa and hay production for desert dairies and feedlots depletes ground and surface water, leaving cities, wildlife and recreation chasing ever lower flows on this iconic river. According to The New York Times, livestock production uses 75 percent of Colorado River flows, which currently are 15 percent lower than they were in 1990—and dropping. Statistics for the Rio Grande are similar.

How do we handle a commercial interest that disproportionately burdens the public water supply? The dairy and beef industries, and forage growers, provide some jobs, but their high water consumption threatens many other crops and businesses—employing far more people—as well as domestic water-users who depend on water for survival.

In 1983, the California Supreme Court, in the case National Audubon Society v. Superior Court, ruled that water falls under the public trust doctrine, which says that important public resources are so fundamental to society that courts can impose restrictions when private development threatens public use. The court applied the public trust doctrine to water that had been appropriated under state law, ruling that those appropriations were contrary to the public interest.

If politicians remain unwilling to confront wasteful use of our public water supplies, it might be time to bring a case to the courts.

Tom Ribe is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He lives in New Mexico.

Published in Community Voices

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