TULARE, Calif.—Signs of drought are everywhere in California’s agricultural Central Valley. On my monthlong multistate road trip through the drought-stricken West for Slate, there was nowhere that produced more gasps per square mile as here.
Tulare Lake was once the largest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi. But it is no more. This lake (and surrounding ecosystem) was one of the first major casualties of Central Valley agriculture, way back around the turn of the previous century. Farmers from the East settled here after the Civil War, and maps from that era show the lake with roads drawing closer to the tantalizing water source. Technically, four rivers still connect to this lake bed, but none actually make it here with water anymore. The lake has partially reappeared at times, as recently as 1997’s El Niño–driven floods, which couldn’t be contained by the maze of canals and river diversions that feed local agriculture.
One afternoon, I drove out to the now-dry lake bed to have a look around.
In some places, it was like a Plato’s ideal of drought. Surprisingly, there were more green fields than fallow ones, fed in this driest of dry years by groundwater pumping. But the empty fields felt ominous. I encountered more than one dust storm on my way back, passing through soil blown into the air on a warm and windy March day.
This year, water that would have been diverted to thirsty fields never came. That’s mostly due to straight-up lack of water. After all, the state is in the midst of months and months of practically no rain and currently has the slimmest snowpack on record—just 4 percent of normal as of Tuesday. But part of the dwindling water supply has been kept in streams, to keep sensitive rivers flowing. According to some farmers here, that means the extreme lack of water is partly the government’s fault.
They’ve got a case.
During a year of record-breaking drought in California, water is about as political as you can get these days. Cries of mismanagement of the state’s slim water resources abound.
For Gavin Iacono, a deputy agricultural commissioner for Tulare County, it’s a matter of priorities. He says California’s booming urban areas have lost touch with the reality of agriculture. “I call it ‘Safeway-itis’. Most people in cities don’t have direct contact with the land, or the way their food is produced anymore. It’s like, ‘Who cares about farmers? I can just get my food from the grocery store.’”
Iacono, a cowboy-booted and belt-buckled figure who “used to rodeo for a living,” is a charismatic force of nature in his tiny office, and would fit right in in Texas. With a wide smile, he recalls his days touring the competitions around the West, when people would ask questions like, “I didn’t know you had cattle in California! Do you know how to surf?”
He says farmers like him often get a bad rap in the state:
Some of the biggest environmentalists you’ve ever seen are farmers and ranchers. I mean, we’re farming a desert. We’re hyper conscious about our water. You can’t use it up until there’s nothing left. They’re not making any more ground.
Here in the Valley, you’ve got to balance that need with everything else. When we irrigate, where does the excess go? It goes into the ground. When cities waste water, it goes to a treatment plant, it might be recycled, maybe used for landscaping.
The agricultural advocacy in his family runs deep. Iacono’s grandfather used to boast: “If I knew I would die today, I would go down and blow up the pumping station to L.A.”
Fighting over water has long been an unofficial pastime in the West. The landmark Supreme Court case Arizona v. California (actually a series of decisions spread out over some 75 years) put a cap on how much water could be drawn from the Colorado River after Arizona sent an armed militia to the state line to protest the construction of a dam in 1934. In the 1970s, major environmental regulations like the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act placed further limits on the amount of water that could be diverted for agricultural use.