The rain is hard here in California, when it comes. It is not like rain in the East or in any part of Europe I’ve been, including the Mediterranean. And while it is not harder than a tropical thunderstorm or one of those billowing mountains of black that sweep across the Plains states, it pounds at the ground with a driving consistency that can last for days, as out of Pacific-driven clouds fall billions and billions of gallons of water.
But all this water is an illusion, one that has given rise to modern California as much as the sunshine, rich soil, and cool sea breezes. Even as the Laguna de Santa Rosa—the wetland that my new hometown of Sebastopol is built on the edge of—widens into a lake after a winter storm, and even as feet of snow fall in the mountains just a few hours away, it is not real.
The green grass on the burnt hills is not real and neither are the budding grape vines stretching to the horizon. None of them are real in today’s California, which is built to use so much more water than could ever fall from the sky in one day, week, or month, in order to fulfill not just one messianic dream but several—of feeding the world, of supporting tens of millions of people, and of doing this all in a natural setting that is supposed to fill the soul with wonder.
Everyone knows about the illusion. There’s always a line or two about it in any serious article about California. If it’s not water, it’s mudslides, fires, earthquakes, or a supposed exodus to Texas or Oregon or Colorado. But the warnings always seem pro forma, and they convince hardly anyone that California is uninhabitable—just a bit dangerous, a bit edgy, a place to where you can still reinvent yourself and realize your dreams, whether you want to be a movie star, the next Steve Jobs, or grow a cash crop, be it marijuana, almonds, or, where I live, grapes.
The natural water cycle in California, what I call the old water, is scary; it can ruin you with its seemingly endless absence and wash your withered corpse away in a winter wall of water-logged earth. Today, as the state faces its worst drought in possibly 500 years, some are calling it a “bellwether drought,” asking whether drought is our new normal, a crisis deepened by the specter of climate change, even as we’re at the same time overdue for our next devastating flood.
As the buffers we’ve erected against the old water evaporate, we’re exposed to a capricious force that does not care whether we succeed here or not, one that will not listen to our prayers and which patiently accepts our dams, our wells, and the rising heat because it knows we are temporary and that with enough time—even if it takes millions of years—we will be more or less forgotten by California.
In 1980, when I was seven, we moved from a village outside Buffalo, NY, to central Marin County, about 45 minutes north of San Francisco, eventually settling on the banks of a paved-over creek in the upper reaches of Santa Margarita Valley, on the north fork of Gallinas Creek, which feeds San Pablo Bay, which forms the northern extension of San Francisco Bay. The native Miwoks had apparently never chosen to live in our valley, and before the developers built our subdivision in the 1950s and 1960s, there had been, more or less, only cows since the arrival of the Spanish.
I knew nothing of the California Dream. I was seven, and I was one of the few in the 1980s to foster the Western New York Dream. I do not remember any rain in Buffalo, though the basement flooded once, and I opened the door downstairs and found a lake and then have vague memories of mold on the walls. Naturally, I remember the snow, the towering drifts, the whirling blizzards, the crusted ice over the hedges, which I ate with my friends as we wandered alone to school at the age of six. There was no illusion in Buffalo—you got what you got, and I liked that.
Five years after my big flood, I endured as a teenager the last extreme Californian drought, from 1987 to 1992. This gave us just the smallest taste of the old water, of the fear that the tap would run dry.
A couple years after we moved to California, there was a winter deluge, and a huge chunk of the hill that loomed above our neighborhood slid away—a gash still clear today. I used to go down to the channelized and concrete-lined creek bed—when I wasn’t holding leaf races in the gutter—to stare at the ephemeral seething runoff racing down the usually bone-dry drainage ditch that had replaced the creek. In my Buffalo-shaped mind, I could not understand how it could be so dry and then so dangerously wet.
The flood of 1982 was maybe the worst in Marin history, but around the state, it was matched or exceeded by floods in 1909, 1938, 1955, 1964, and 1996–1997, just to name a few. Some of these floods were caused by normal storms, or driven by El Niño climatic changes, but occasionally something grander formed a mile high in the sky—an unusually large “atmospheric river.” A moderate-sized one can produce precipitation equal to what the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico in a week. Get a big one and that is when the old water gets Biblical on California.
The Great Flood of 1862 started on Christmas Eve in 1861: 43 days of driving rain that melted an already abnormally large snow pack, the runoff made worse by tons of loose mining spoils and devastated river banks from the Gold Rush. The flood turned the Central Valley into a shallow sea the size of Lake Ontario—300 miles long, 20 miles wide, and 30 feet deep in some places. Thousands died, hundreds of thousands of cattle drowned, and the state went bankrupt. If a similar storm hit today, it could cause up to $300 billion in damage and force the evacuation of 1.2 million people, according to a government analysis.
Five years after my big flood, I endured as a teenager the last extreme Californian drought, from 1987 to 1992. For political reasons, Marin County was not connected to California’s big water system, and the rain-filled reservoirs drained to near empty. This gave us just the smallest taste of the old water, of the fear that the tap would run dry. Water was rationed to 50 gallons per person per day; we saved our extra in buckets, and froze in winter mornings taking almost dry showers. I panicked under those seemingly endless blue skies and too hot afternoons. I panicked at the lack of change when I really wanted the sky to change—and it was not random that the college I chose, back East, was one I visited on a day of a heavy spring rain, preceded by a thick morning mist rising from the lush lawns.
The drought lasted until 1992, but in Marin it more or less ended in a single “Miracle March” in 1991 when it rained almost every day, and five years of drought were over, my home spared by the old water.
This is not always the case. Before the Europeans came, there were civilization-wrecking mega droughts in the Middle Ages that lasted 180 and 240 years respectively, not to mention nine droughts in the past five centuries worse than the 1930s Dust Bowl. Even now, in what we consider normal years, the bottom half of the state gets as much rain as the North African plain (which does not, as far as I know, look much like Beverly Hills). Our century has been a wet one, they say, and the droughts short.
Let’s hope they don’t get long.
The Spanish established the first water rights in California in 1769, but there was little European settlement beyond a few coastal missions and cattle ranches. Then in 1849, John Sutter found gold in the Sierra Nevada, and a raging mob of ’49ers flooded into California, with work starting on levees in the Central Valley the very next year.
The old water proved no match for a society of water seekers—both big business and big government, and pioneers and outcasts—driven by ancient impulses to civilize the desert and with the modern machinery to accomplish it. The scope of the water projects grew steadily but rapidly from simple levees to some of the largest public works projects in human history.
This machinery soothed the fears of those that had faced the old water. You can read it in “Holy Water,” Joan Didion’s famous love letter to big water found in The White Album. You can read it in Didion’s fascination with the mechanics of moving so many billions of gallons of water around, keeping the taps from going dry in an arid state, keeping floods from washing away the ranches of her central California childhood.
“As it happens my own reverence for water has always taken the form … of an obsessive interest not in the politics of water but in the waterworks themselves, in the movement of water through aqueducts and siphons and pumps and forebays and afterbays and weirs and drains, in plumbing on the grand scale,” she wrote.
Hers was an ode to scale and power and the might of an industrial age that could move entire lakes and rivers worth of water over mountains at the push of a button. She dismisses the ever-loaded political overtones, but the eloquent awe she feels for the waterworks and the way she sees how two of the largest public works projects in human history created her languidly charged life in Los Angeles are more reassuring than any political tract.
And the big water is glorious, both in scale and in function. I lived in Los Angeles. I walked in lush gardens, sat by restaurant fountains, and swam in perfect pools where nature did not intend them. I marveled at the palm trees and the endless reach of the San Fernando Valley, or the sprawling cities east and south. The two primary systems—the federal Central Valley Project and the state’s own State Water Project—that make these wonders possible move more than three trillion gallons of water south in an average year, reversing the flow of the San Joaquin River at times and consuming five percent of the state’s electricity.
Yet people have fought the “Faustian bargain” of big water from the beginning, both for its supposed ecological insanity and its economic inefficiencies. The naturalist John Muir battled for 12 years against plans for the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which filled a valley they said was as glorious as Yosemite in order to quench the thirst of San Francisco. And the battles over bringing water to Los Angeles—which was running out of water as early as 1880—from the far away Owens Valley and Colorado River are well chronicled, most famously in the movie Chinatown from 1974. But there are other stories too of vigilantes dynamiting dams and sad tales of the ruined, lung-choking desert left behind after Los Angeles took all the water away.
None of this dented the illusion that life in a golden state was worth the cost. Because just look at what it gave us—a paradise—and look what it validated—a “pioneer spirit” that gives us a sense of agency and control in the shadow of a monumental, uncaring land.
The big water is glorious, both in scale and in function. I lived in Los Angeles. I walked in lush gardens, sat by restaurant fountains, and swam in perfect pools where nature did not intend them.
Still, big water does not quench California’s thirst, not anymore. Each year more than 700 billion gallons of groundwater are pumped out of Californian soils than are recharged through rainfall, and this is making parts of the Central Valley sink almost a foot a year. Not even in good times is there enough water to flood the almond orchards, grow lettuce, feed the cattle, and still supply Los Angeles and San Jose and San Francisco with water. Oh, and don’t forget about the fish.
And these are not good times. The rain poured down on and off through March, and the newspaper stories kept saying, no, this will make no difference. Even as the grass grew. Flowers bloomed. Hills burst with color and cows stood in mucky, swampy fields. No, it makes no difference, said the stories. And now, in May, the rainy season is over, and there is not nearly enough water in the mountains and reservoirs.
Farmers are selling cattle, ripping out almond orchards, and drilling wells ever deeper. Bees are dying from a lack of flowers, and air pollution is worse because there has been no rain to cleanse the skies. The fire season last year was hellacious and firefighters are already under siege. The state’s fire season has essentially become year round.
No Water, No Wine
I live in Wine Country now, a still transforming western edge of it where they’re ripping out gnarled Gravenstein apple orchards to plant grapes in somehow natural-seeming symmetrical rows of wooden crosses that follow the contours of the sandy hills above the reclaimed soggy marsh.
I ride my bike into the fields some mornings. They are squeezed onto any plot possible, it seems, and first, after the hard February rains, the ground cover turned green, then came the buds speckles of green in endless rows, true regeneration on the cross, then there were leaves sprouting on the vines, though I saw no grapes yet from the road.
Wine, of course, has a romance that almonds lack. It is the drink of the gods—of blood, of violent intoxication, of play, of joy, of transformation—the unreleased powers of nature, both human and earthly. Wine brings tourism and five-star restaurants and lends a sheen of luxury and Continental class to the illusion.
Wine may also be the bellwether crop of the bellwether drought. Grapes don’t do well in the desert. In fact, wine grapes thrive in very specific temperate climate zones, approximately between the 30th and 50th parallel, and a recent study found that California wine production could plummet in the upcoming decades as the world bakes.
Grapevines also require a commitment of decades. You cannot fallow the vineyard for a year because it’s dry. So it takes a leap of faith in the illusion, in the big or old water both—however the farmer thinks—to be planting vines now.
Many people where I live mourn the apples. But what happens after the wine is gone? Citrus maybe? Or almonds? Tomatoes?
Myths of the Rain
Water is the foundation of life, and its lack causes panic, even as we push into the desert, certain the water will follow the plow, and other sorts of nonsense.
In Sicily in 1893, there was a devastating drought that lasted for six months, according to Sir James George Frazer in The Golden Bough. All the tried and true methods—processions, all-night vigils, the inhabitants of Nicosia scourging each other with iron whips—were attempted and in the best of faith. Nothing worked.
There is no life, family, or society that endures long in terms of Earth. But in some times and places, humans can have a sense that perhaps the world will not fall apart this year, or next, or even in the lifetime of their grandkids. That’s an illusion I want.
Today in California, our political and business clergy are performing their own rites and holding their equivalent of all-night vigils. They talk of doubling down on big water, of massive new pipelines to the south, of building a huge new dam in the Central Valley, raising the height of current dams. Then there are those who want to drain an aquifer beneath the Mojave Desert or resurrect plans to ship water to the American West from the Missouri River.
And mixed into this mumbo jumbo is the perpetual nastiness of California water politics, with a lot of magical fighting words about “farms over fish” as farmers bemoan rules meant to protect the endangered Delta smelt at the perceived expense of irrigation. Or the farmers complain about the cities, and vice versa. Always, there is Northern California versus Southern California, with the North perpetually resentful of the South’s “stealing” its water, and the South feeling like it deserves it, especially now that it’s apparently better prepared for drought than the careless, no-longer-water-rich North.
In a creeping disaster like this one, the pressure builds incrementally, quiet desperation sinking into the dry soil instead of rain. Even today, it is hard for me to comprehend the vagaries of a massive and persistent high pressure system—called the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge—parked off the Pacific coast like an invisible mountain range, which diverted the winter storms north away from California and into Alaska and British Columbia. Drought is an absence, after all, and one from the sky, at that.
In Sicily in 1893, desperate in the endless sun, the hungry people got angry: At Palermo they dumped St. Joseph in a garden to see the state of things for himself, and they swore to leave him there in the sun till rain fell. Other saints were turned, like naughty children, with their faces to the wall… At Licata the patron saint, St. Angelo, fared even worse, for he was left without any garments at all; he was reviled, he was put in irons, he was threatened with drowning or hanging. “Rain or the rope!” roared the angry people at him, as they shook their fists in his face.
In pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, it went even further. The Toltecs sacrificed children to the rain god, Tlaloc, through both wet periods and through a series of droughts that depopulated entire regions. Apparently, the Toltecs, and the Aztecs after them, believed that the tears of the young victims would invoke the god’s tears, which was the rain.
And, too often, the god did not care enough to cry.
The Folly of Managed Water
There is a serious, grounded way to approach this drought—one that seems to reject big water and respect old water—and still lets us live the California Dream.
We can call it managed water, and it is good. It is about taking the dryness of the West seriously. It is talking about local solutions, cleaning dirty ground water, reusing treated sewage water, tearing out lawns, and building energy-efficient desalination plants.
It is about living in limits, and it is anti-Californian in that way, since Europeans haven’t acknowledged limits here since the Gold Rush. But it appeals to my Midwestern Presbyterian side, the part that fit in so well when I lived in Sweden, where they say that Luther sits on your shoulder, always watching.
The subtext of the managed water message goes something like this: Maybe we will have no more easy water, no more great expansion. But the California Dream can still hold, just with ornamental rocks in the front yard instead of grass. Examples include proposals to get Los Angeles to zero imported water by 2050 through “a grid of small solutions.” And Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District is already “recycling sewage effluent, giving away high-efficiency water nozzles and subsidizing items like artificial turf and zero-water urinals” according to the New York Times. On the state level, you can read a water report from the Pacific Institute titled, “California Water 2030: An Efficient Future.”
In the short run, this shift to local and more sustainable solutions may give California a few more decades in the sweet spot. But it won’t solve the problem of water in California. Even if taps in the richest cities don’t run dry, even if urban California spends vast amounts of money on desalination plants to guarantee supplies, what about the fires, the mudslides, the smog warnings? What happens to quality of life in a California that is dusty and scorching and where only the well-off have water? Do we want to live in a land that supports no farms and has no fish in the rivers or birds on the waters?
It is good to speak of managed water, but let’s not see it as the end game.
Living With California
I didn’t move back to California because I missed the illusion of an endless summer with limitless natural and economic resources. In fact, I expected that dream to be shattered or at least thinner.
I moved back because my family moved back first. I moved back because 20 years after fleeing the blue skies of drought, the depth of my experience in California was never matched in New York or the Balkans or Scandinavia. The Bay Area turned out to be home, and that home seems to be built on an unsustainable foundation, which offends my authenticity-craving Gen X soul.
In the articles, no one really articulates the end game. Headlines talk of “a painful reckoning.” Experts say things like “I see a state that is standing on the edge of a cliff” or “There will be cataclysmic impacts.” But we remain in the phase of the elliptical threat, the dire warning left unfinished. In my head, these hints provoke disaster-film visions of California failing—of desperate caravans heading east to repopulate Detroit and Akron, of gated urban areas living off desalinated water while the rest of the state devolves into a degraded Pacific Appalachian desert hell.
There is no life, family, or society that endures long in terms of Earth. But in some times and places, humans can have a sense that perhaps the world will not fall apart this year, or next, or even in the lifetime of their grandkids. That’s an illusion I want, even if what I really need is to accept that there is a dynamic, creative society in California now, and it does not matter if it disappears in 100 years in a spasm of thirst-driven destruction, just like in ancient Mesoamerica.
This is irresponsible but maybe the only way to get through the day.
What I really want is to get past the illusions, to live in some accordance with the old water and know my grandchildren can have their own California Dream. I want to be rationed, and I want agriculture to get some water and nature to get a lot. I want something radical and sustainable, like terraforming the Central Valley to bring back an American Serengeti to the San Joaquin Delta, or even right here in the Laguna de Santa Rosa where I live. It wouldn’t be pure nature, but a place where we both shape the landscape and let go of dreams of mastering the land.
California is bold, a vision of rich men repeatedly hijacked by hippies, surfers, gold miners, dreamers in Hollywood, and Silicon Valley engineers. Together we have attacked the state with industrial might and a liberating individuality; we have turned mountain and ocean into a canvas for our projected dreams. There is a hint of sadness to this desperate effort, a shadow passing over the illusion of a golden state. We drink the waters of paradise, even though they are not ours, and wait for the gods to pass judgment.