California is sinking.
Literally. Right before our eyes, even as we struggle to see it. In parts of the state’s Central Valley, the 50-mile-wide and 400-mile-long agricultural engine of America immortalized by John Steinbeck and Joan Didion, the earth is receding back into itself at a rate of more than a foot per year. Why? The ceaseless drilling and pumping of water to fuel a region that produces one quarter of the nation’s food.
There’s a word for this alarming phenomenon — subsidence — but it hardly captures the imagination. A scientist with the U.S. Geological Service named Joe Poland knew this, and so one day in 1977, he drove into the Central Valley, found a telephone pole to his liking and used it to create one of the more effective and terrifying displays of science.
Poland is one of the many unforgettable characters sewn together in The Dreamt Land, a mesmerizing new book that examines the nation’s most populous state through the prism of its most valuable resource: water. Call author Mark Arax, an award-winning journalist, historian and native son of the Central Valley, a Steinbeck for the 21st century.
The Dreamt Land is equal parts of Grapes of Wrath and Chinatown. It’s a chronicle of how water and drought shaped California’s history until its people figured out how to shape the water, bending the rivers and moving the rain, to farm, to build, to grow, grow, grow. But the book also has a mystery at its core. In 2014, as East Coast journalists parachuted in to document California’s crippling drought, Arax saw “something paradoxical happening.” In the midst of one of the worst droughts in history, the big farmers were planting even more almonds, pistachios, mandarins and grapes.
How is this possible? he wondered. His search for answers led him down lost highways in pursuit of an off-the-books water-siphoning scheme and to the front door of a Beverly Hills billionaire who runs one of America’s largest farming companies, which has taken over a dusty Valley town called Lost Hills. “The middle of California is kind of in exile from the rest of the state, and its stories don’t often go beyond this valley,” Arax tells Rolling Stone. “And yet these empires — I mean, they’re the biggest farmers in the world.”
When did you come up with this idea, a history of California through water?
I was writing a novel at the time, and I was seeing all these journalists coming in. And they were here to document the new apocalypse: Dust bowl. Return of the Dust Bowl.
I was seeing something else during my drives through the Valley. I was seeing the footprint of agriculture extending even further into the horizon. Yes, there were places that were drying up. But alongside those places the big guys were making even bigger bets of agriculture and water. They were expanding. That’s what took me to the empire of Stewart Resnick.
How has Resnick — a billionaire and arguably the biggest farmer in America — managed to stay obscure for so long? If he were on the East Coast, he would have been on the cover of Fortune magazine four times by now.
No one ever told the Gallos’ story until the Gallos started feuding in court. A journalist walked in the courtroom and thought, “My God, what a story. A story that begins with the Gallo brothers, their father killing their mother and then killing himself in the San Joaquin Valley, and they become the biggest winemakers in the world.” No one told that story.
The boll weevil had driven J.G. Boswell and his family out of the South. They landed in the middle of San Joaquin Valley, the largest part of the Central Valley, drained the biggest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi and grew the biggest cotton patch in America. No one had ever told that story until myself and Rick Wartzman told it in 2004 and 2005.
It has to do with the [Valley] being geographically and psychically exiled from the rest of California. And what they’re doing — farming — is kind of a mystery to most folks. The kind of farming they’re doing, these specialty crops, is even more of a mystery. This is like a canvas that I’ve had to myself for so many years, just telling the story of this place.
The story you tell in Dreamt Land spans several hundred years and basically the entire history of California. Where does it start?
You have to start with the idea that we took a thousand miles of the edge of a continent and we just declared it one state. The problem is that California had eight, if not more, states of nature residing within it. Immediately, the builders of that place are faced with this giant question: How do we even out the differences in these places? The proposition of California was a crazy one.
The book starts as a book about drought. Then it becomes a book about drought and flood. Then it becomes a book about the system we built to temper the tantrums of drought and flood. And then it necessarily becomes the story of the creation of California.
Early in the book, you quote a friend of yours who is a farmer, as he’s drilling deeper and deeper in search of water for his almond trees. You say to him, “You’re mining water, Brad.” And he says, “I know, Mark, but what am I going to do? The water’s down there.” That struck me as both simple and revealing.
It’s the way we began. California wasn’t a function of manifest destiny so much. It was a function of the gold rush. So we started off super-charged, and we’ve never stopped. It was this hurtling-forward that no state in the country had ever experienced. That culture of extraction that began in the gold rush has really never ended. That’s California, and that’s what I was seeing play out.
I’m watching him dig this hole 1,800 feet into the ground, and he’s bringing up this water that is salty, full of boron. We’re driving out to this slab of earth in the middle of a drought, and he’s looking to plant 280 more acres of pistachios. It’s all salt brush in the middle of this desert, and he’s got this rig set up that looks like it’s a platform out of the Texas oilfields. He’s drilling and he’s putting his hands in the water, and he’s smelling it and tasting it. Here’s one of the more sane, sensible farmers I know. I’m thinking, “Brad, what are you doing?”
You’ve plucked these fascinating characters from the history books. I want to talk about the University of California professor who sounds the alarm, nearly a century ago, about the unregulated, Wild West approach to pumping out groundwater to feed the state’s growth.
Harding was his name. He’s hired by the state to figure out what the hell’s going on in the San Joaquin Valley. Why are they extending farmland so far out? He discovers that by 1920 the farmers have diverted the entire flow of these rivers to agriculture. The turbine pump has been developed, and they’re able to extract groundwater, but it isn’t enough. When they run out of river water, they want to steal themselves a river from afar. Obviously, the river they’re going to steal is the Sacramento.
Harding is the closest thing that we have to a Cassandra. He appears in the 1920s, and he’s putt-putting along the Valley, and he’s seeing this madness play out. He’s warning them: Hey, watch out, we’re pumping too much groundwater, and we’re using a resource that everybody needs to share, and by doing that, we’re going to create this kind of dust bowl.
So he’s talking about the over-development of agriculture, the over-development of water. It’s almost a century later when California finally heeds his warning and starts regulating groundwater.
And then there’s Joe Poland and his incredible photograph showing how California is sinking. You look at that photo and you can’t believe your eyes.
The sinking of the earth is like a termite that eats from the inside at the structure of things. You don’t feel the foundation crumbling. You don’t see the meticulous ravage until it’s too late. It’s really a hidden force.
He’s got this little white shirt and his hat and his boots. For years, he’s documented the granular nature of subsidence and the do-nothing of government, and this inch-by-inch sinking of the land over decades. The inches have become many feet, right? He’s this devoted government scientist who is doing all this in basically the quiet. How do we wake up the public to this destruction of subsidence? What if the years of measuring the earth’s downward creep could be rescued from his files and turned into a provocation?
In a half a century’s span, the land here has sunk almost 30 feet. And so you’re looking at this photograph, and to me it’s something out of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, right?
The politics of agriculture doesn’t seem to fall along the familiar ideological or partisan lines. How do you see it?
Well, the farmers are obviously big donors to campaigns, right? You’ve got both Democratic and Republican politicians recognizing that fact, and so you’ll have an otherwise very liberal elected official essentially advocating for the water to be concentrated into a few hands.
What explains a farmer who relies on labor from across the border in Mexico holding up a Trump sign at a rally?
He would seem to be endorsing the very thing that was going to put him out of business. And yet that’s what I saw. And when I asked a farmer how that could be, he told me something that was a real lesson in politics. He said, “Let me explain what seems like a paradox to you. It’s not a paradox at all. The farmer and the Mexican are engaged in a centuries-long game. As rich as the farmer might be, his workers can still bring him to his knees if they realize their power. The farmer doesn’t like feeling vulnerable.”
This grower said he supported a ballot measure to deny public schooling and other benefits to undocumented workers because he knows that, even if it goes into effect, and even if what Trump is talking about is going to happen, nothing’s going to change. As I write, “Law or not, the Mexican will keep coming to his fields, and as long as they keep coming, he wanted them to always feel a little ‘iffy.’”
They’re more realpolitik than anybody: Trump can say all he wants, we can pass all the laws we want, but the Mexican is still going to find himself to the fields of the San Joaquin Valley. And as long as they’re still going to be here, we want them to feel a little insecure, as this farmer told me. We want them to feel a little iffy.
There’s another tension I felt as I read your book. How much of California’s changing landscape and environment is due to climate change, and how much is due to the incredible impact that farming and water extraction has had on the land?
We don’t need global warming to make us a place that swings wildly between drought and flood, wildfire and mudslide. Now what’s happening is that the inherent forces in California are teaming up with climate change to create havoc we’ve never seen.
California has always refused to ask itself the primary question: How big do we want to grow? In my lifetime, we’ve gone from 11 million Californians to 40 million. The system is cracking. Can it serve 50 million? 60 million? But we never want to ask that question. California allowed communities to be built in the path of wildfire and never said a word about it so that a little lumber town like Paradise could grow into a sprawling ridge of 40,000 people. Then it burns down. Much of it gets burned off the map.
We need to begin with that first question, which is how big do we want to grow? And then where do we grow? Do we keep sprawling out? Do we grow up? Do we preserve the best farmland in the world? Do we want to continue to grow our own food, even if that food is vegetables and fruits and nuts? These are the decisions that the state needs to be making.