If the North American continent were suddenly to rupture along California’s eastern boundary, sending the Golden State plunging into the Pacific Ocean, those to the east of Nevada’s new beaches would soon feel the pain in their supermarkets. As the nation’s leading farming state, California produces more than a quarter of the nation’s table crops. Yet even without a seismic disaster, California’s bounty may soon disappear.
I’d long heard of the outstanding achievements of California agriculture, but as Robert Dawson and I traveled around the state documenting its environment, it was the farming regions that troubled us the most. Seldom did we find anything resembling a Grant Wood landscape of small and prosperous homesteads; instead, we found the depopulated surrealism of de Chirico, and the same sad faces once captured by Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era photographs. California’s image of success belies its rural poverty. We realized that the key to the state’s present and future predicament lies in its history, as well as in the way that humans have perceived and used its soil.
Those who explored California in the early 19th century recounted grasses and lupines rising higher than a man on horseback and similarly gigantic valley oaks and conifers. Water tables were high then, and the valley soils of California were deep and fertile. The size of the native vegetation flourishing on the Pacific slope suggested fortunes to the men who first claimed the land and forced it to yield to the cow and the plow. For the first few years, the state’s soils poured the banked solar energy of ages into monster vegetables and bonanza wheat yields; crops of up to 50 bushels of wheat per acre were not uncommon. But the strain of steady extraction quickly cut the yield to a quarter of what it had been. As early as 1901, novelist Frank Norris wrote in The Octopus that Californians worked their land like the mines that had drawn them to the Golden State. They had come not to settle, but to get rich and to move on. Soil was meant to turn a profit, and, he predicted, “When at last, the land…would refuse to yield, they would invest their money in something else; by then, they would all have made fortunes.”
California was not, after all, what the Founding Fathers had intended. Thomas Jefferson’s dream of a democratic nation built upon the labor of small farmers shattered on the rocky spine of the Sierra Nevada. In this new world, circumstances created the conditions for a society more like the Old World. Lax laws, corruption, rampant fraud, and vast Mexican land grants produced a world-renowned degree of land monopoly. By the 1870s, less than half of 1 percent of California’s population owned half of the land in the state. (By 1992, the agricultural census suggested the situation had grown worse. By then, about 2,600 landowners claimed 65 percent of private farming land.)
The agricultural fiefdoms of California’s Central Valley, in particular, demanded increasingly sophisticated technology and growing amounts of energy to extract maximum returns with a minimum of skilled labor. The state’s foundries produced the latest in customized reapers, seeders, and gang plows for the vast fields. Ranchers used centrifugal pumps to mine water at an ever-greater depth, clamshell dredges to dike and dry out marshlands, ditchers to excavate irrigation canals.
Human ingenuity and capital turned California into the greatest food and fiber factory ever known. California agriculture, of course, resembled farming about as much as a Ford assembly plant resembles a crofter’s cottage. Then, as now, agriculture was considered an industry. (That’s why, with unintentional irony, we replace the suffix “culture” with “business.”) Small wonder that by the turn of the century, most of the valley’s artesian wells had gone dry from continual overdraft and drought. Pumps took over, dropping water tables and stanching the flow of springs upon which wildlife depended. No longer able to reach moisture, trees, grass, and bushes died, and the soil turned to dust through the age-old process known as desertification.
Nonetheless, with the aid of advancing technology, the land continued to yield a phenomenal bounty, the value of which — like that of mining — obscured its environmental costs. In 1905, the San Francisco Chronicle boasted: “California’s Method of Agriculture Now a Model for the World.” Ever since, California agribusiness has served as a model for today’s energy- and chemical-intensive food production. But the state’s short-term success is precisely why its future is in doubt.
The costs of damming and moving water grew prohibitive even for the largest ranchers and growers, particularly as the natural flow of artesian wells ceased. By 1902, Congress had passed the Reclamation Act, committing the federal government in perpetuity to building dams and canals to irrigate the arid lands of the West. In response to public pressure to break up hereditary fiefdoms, the act clearly stated that no one receiving publicly subsidized water could own more than 160 acres; furthermore, those farms had to be owner-occupied.
For a few decades, the concentration of land ownership appeared to reverse. Agricultural colonies sprang up and older farming towns were reinvigorated by an influx of new settlers. In 1912 the town of Modesto erected a triumphal arch near the train station that announced, in electric letters, “water, wealth, contentment, health.” A growing network of electric rail lines promised to speed produce to cities, and the availability of telephones and mail delivery promised to end the traditional isolation of the farm. Stretching 180 miles from Oakland to Chico, the Sacramento Northern Railway was the longest electric interurban in the nation, with branch lines reaching out to farming towns throughout the valley.
The Depression ended this period of deconcentration, throwing thousands of California farmers off the land and adding hundreds of thousands of landless immigrants from the Midwestern dust bowl and the South to an increasingly desperate labor pool. By 1936, the Transamerica Corporation alone had acquired 2,642 farms totaling more than half a million acres.
The federal government unwittingly aided the creation of new land baronies. In 1944, the Bureau of Reclamation closed the outlet gates on its massive Shasta Dam, creating a gigantic reservoir — the northern linchpin of its Central Valley Project — at the head of the Sacramento Valley. Designed to store floodwaters, generate electricity, and move water at public expense to the San Joaquin Valley, the CVP gave instant value to desert lands far to the south.
Agribusiness could scarcely exist without such stupendous public assistance. And through legal legerdemain and government compliance, individuals and corporations persistently evaded both the acreage limitation and residency requirements of the old Reclamation Act while applying heavily subsidized water to holdings of tens of thousands of acres.
In 1960, agribusiness went for the gold. In league with Southern California land developers, industry leaders persuaded voters to pay for the greatest of all water-moving schemes, the State Water Project. The SWP was designed to dam the Sacramento River’s largest tributary, the Feather, and send water down the San Joaquin Valley via the California Aqueduct. Near Bakersfield, massive pumps would lift the water over the Tehachapi Mountains and send it to Southern California cities. The deliberate omission of acreage and residency restrictions breathed new life into the fiefdoms owned by major corporations, such as Chevron and Southern Pacific, and wealthy individuals, such as the Chandler family of the Los Angeles Times.
The drain was begun but never completed. Cost and environmental objections stopped it 90 miles shy of its goal. At its premature terminus in the grasslands near Los Banos, the wastewater ponded and concentrated. Reclamation officials called the wetlands a win-win situation, providing drainage as well as a badly needed habitat for a dwindling number of waterfowl traveling the Pacific flyway. The federal government declared it the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge.
Ranchers bordering the refuge had their doubts and soon reported foul odors and sick cattle. Biologists from the Fish and Wildlife Service found high levels of dead bird embryos in the marshes and chicks with grotesque birth defects. The problem was selenium, a trace element common to desert soils throughout the arid West. Irrigation waters had dissolved selenium and, like mining debris loosened by hydraulic cannons, moved it downhill. Kesterson, it seemed, was less a refuge than a toxic dump, a death trap whose name soon joined that of Love Canal.
Kesterson was only part of the dark backdrop to the apparent success of California agribusiness. In 1944, the same year Shasta Dam began operating, the Bureau of Reclamation completed Friant Dam on the San Joaquin River, shunting the river in canals along the east side of the valley as far south as Bakersfield. Friant quickly dried up the San Joaquin, turning its lower course into little more than a drainage ditch carrying agricultural waste to the pumps and starving the delta and San Francisco Bay of more than a fifth of their freshwater inflow. Within five years, salmon counts on the San Joaquin plunged from a high of 60,000 to zero.
None of the promotion for agribusiness had mentioned that in order for it to grow, another leading food industry would have to die. San Francisco Bay, the delta, and the rivers that fed them had provided a nursery for fish and shellfish that once made the region one of the nation’s leading fishing ports. Frank Quan, the last of the fishermen at Marin’s China Camp State Park, noticed the change when Friant Dam choked the San Joaquin. “It was so gradual that at first we didn’t realize the effect of the diversion,” Quan told a reporter in 1992. “Now we are at about bottom today. There is no flounder out there, the bass are about gone, and the shrimp are about gone too. …[T]here is not enough fresh water getting into the Bay, and now all the Bay water is as salty as the ocean.”
San Francisco Bay was not the only place salting up. Far to the south, alkali encrusted farmland like snow in the desert sun, killing crops in San Joaquin’s Tulare Basin. In the thousands of years since it destroyed the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia, salt has cursed the farmers of irrigated desert lands. California is no exception.
Of the 3 million tons of salt that federal and state aqueducts annually carry into the San Joaquin Valley, some escapes down the ditch once known as the San Joaquin River, back to the delta. There it is picked up by the pumps and sent down the aqueducts to be reapplied to the fields. Much, however, is shipped on to Southern California to issue from the faucets of those who largely paid for the system. The San Joaquin Valley may well constitute the world’s largest salt loop.
I first noticed the salt loop on a map behind the head of the regional director of the Bureau of Reclamation. I was in Sacramento interviewing David Houston in 1984 for a documentary on Kesterson, but he was so smooth that I was getting no good sound bites. Suddenly, looking at the map, I realized the bureau and the state government had connected San Joaquin’s sewage system to millions of Californians’ drinking water, and I pointed it out to Houston. Only then did he momentarily lose his cool.
Nor are salts the only substance accumulating in California’s soils, aquifers, and drinking water. Agribusiness has waxed fat upon fertilizers, soil fumigants, growth hormones, herbicides, defoliants, fungicides, pesticides, and systemic poisons that turn living soil into a hydroponic medium with the nutritive qualities of cardboard. In 1993, farmers spread a reported 63,926 tons of pesticides upon the Central Valley alone. For the traveler crossing the valley, the air smells more like a chemical plant than a farming region. Severe asthma has become commonplace among residents, and clusters of childhood cancers are popping up in rural towns.
For a state so long addicted to the fantasy of perpetual growth, such a pessimistic analysis could not stand in the way of tradition. In fact, the DWR report may actually have helped spur urban growth, for both developers and environmentalists were quick to point out that nearly 80 percent of the state’s captured water is devoted to farming.
More than a year before the DWR issued its report, 21 water agencies supplying more than 35 million city-dwellers formed a new lobbying group called the Western Urban Water Coalition to wrest publicly funded water away from farmers. The coalition represented a historic break in the ancient alliance between California’s urban water districts and agribusiness, which had built the mighty transport systems. By the 1990s, the cities of the arid West had grown to the point that few urbanites knew much about where their food came from. They assumed it would just keep coming. But the seemingly limitless expansion of cities throws considerable doubt on that expectation.
Mined for crops and cattle ever since the Gold Rush, California’s soil now produces its highest return as real estate. For all the bravado about California agriculture — the $12-$20 billion that it annually adds to the economy and the miracles of production and technical ingenuity it has accomplished — farming is on its way out. Drivers can witness a linear city of shopping malls, housing developments, and office parks spreading along Highway 80 from the Bay Area to Sacramento and into the Sierra foothills beyond. More new cities are scheduled for the dry west side of the valley. They will take more than land, for, as they grow, they will require an increasing share of the water that now goes to farms. In the inevitable drought, they will override all other priorities, and in doing so, they will finish off what remains of the state’s fish, wildlife, and orchards.
Such is the logic of limitless growth and of the extractive ethos inherited from the Gold Rush. As Bob and I traveled, we met many who are attempting to re-establish an older relationship with the soil, one based on local commitment and long-term yield. All too often, however, I heard those words from The Octopus: “When at last, the land…would refuse to yield, they would invest their money in something else; by then, they would all have made fortunes.” But where, I wondered, would they go when the world has adopted that model of success?
Gray Brechin and photographer Robert Dawson received the 1992 Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University to collaborate on Farewell, Promised Land, a book about the continuing destruction of the California environment. It will be published in 1998 in conjunction with an exhibition at the Oakland Museum of California.