A dry Folsom Lake, California, 2014. Photo by flickr user Robert Cause-Baker (CC-BY-2.0).

Tapping the Past for California’s Water Future

By now the images of California’s drought—already entering its fourth year—have become iconic. A cracked reservoir bottom, a dusty fallow field, dry irrigation ditches. These images seem to ask, Is the California dream really over? If so, what might a future look like where drought becomes “the new normal” as a result of climate change?

Much of the accompanying commentary has been similarly prophetic. “California has about one year of water stored. Will you ration now?” read the headline of a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. The genre of apocalyptic prophecy functions by diagnosing a human misalignment with nature, and foresees a future in which nature—as a kind of secular deity—punishes our errant behavior. Such prophecy gains its power in fiction; the future has not yet happened, of course, so to avoid it, we must envision the wrathful end we will meet if we continue our wasteful ways. Simultaneously, we must glimpse redemption if we change them, and we debate what ways must change and who must do the changing. As such, this prophecy engenders blame of one another.

Some say the environmentalists are at fault, for protecting the salmon or Delta smelt and preventing water from being put to productive human use. Others say it is the fault of Central Valley industrial farmers—whose groundwater withdrawals increased throughout the drought to overcome rainfall shortages—for causing subsidence and altering the landscape. Still others blame the profligate water use of urban residents and suburban lawn owners, igniting campaigns of water policing among neighbors. Blame has even transcended the California state border, as some have implicated all Americans in the ongoing crisis.

There is a visceral appeal to each of these stories. The moral certitude in blaming others gives the sense that we’ve finally rooted out the cause of our suffering. And while no single story is sufficiently explanatory, each is partially so. Blame derives power by simplifying and distilling causality. These stories make us feel righteous, as suddenly we know who is on the right side of nature and who isn’t.

Moonset over a fallow field, Winters, California, 2014. Photo by flickr user John Uhrig (CC BY 2.0).

Moonset over a fallow field, Winters, California, 2014. Photo by flickr user John Uhrig (CC BY 2.0).

Whomever we are inclined to blame, however, the fact that nobody can agree on any single responsible party points to a deeper though more troubling truth: there is not simply one culprit, nor will the consequences of this drought likely spell the “End of California” that the prophecy foresees. However much we hope this disaster fits within the storylines we give it, it somehow resists easy definition and conclusion.

Deeper still, the very qualities that make prophecy an attractive genre for motivating behavioral change—direct cause-and-effect relationships, finger-pointing, moral certainty—are the very same qualities that limit our storytelling possibilities. The ghosts of California’s hydrologic past are nowhere present in these stories of blame, as the past seems less malleable to change than the Californians of today. According to this logic, we could blame the water developers, farmers, and engineers of the early twentieth century, but how would a visit to a cemetery get us out of our current predicament? The past seems inert and inaccessible.

Therein lies the tension. If apocalyptic prophecies allow us to envision a future that is more dynamic, unprecedented, and foreign than the past, then of what use is history to help us find our footing in California’s uncertain future?

Irrigation gate near Owens Valley, California, 2013. Photo by flickr user Dustin Blakey (CC BY 2.0).

Irrigation gate near Owens Valley, California, 2013. Photo by flickr user Dustin Blakey (CC BY 2.0).

During the state’s last major drought, from 1987-1992, farmers reconsidered their cropping practices. The San Francisco Chronicle ran a profile of Cliff Koster, a fourth-generation farmer just outside the Central Valley town of Tracy whose family had cultivated the 745-acre property since the 1880s. He suddenly faced a 75 percent cutback in his State Water Project allocation in the fifth year of the drought. But, he said, “We can cope.”

He diverted all of his water to care for 200 acres of lucrative almond and walnut trees. The remaining 500 acres went unplanted. When asked how he managed to get by, he said that wheat and other annual crops, while comprising most of the acreage of his farmland, produced marginal profits. He noticed the paradox that his most profitable year came during a drought. He hadn’t used more water; he had just used it more efficiently. He attributed his success to the lessons his parents and grandparents had taught him from their experiences: that adapting to drought meant learning to save water even during wet years. That it was more profitable to plant trees than peas, beans, and wheat. That dead ancestors gave wise advice.

Other farmers in his community noticed his agricultural vision and followed suit. They cut production of low-profit, water-intensive crops like cotton or rice and planted others with higher profits and lower water requirements. This was no blinding revelation for the farmers of Tracy. It was a quieter, earthier knowledge—the kind that is passed from farmer to farmer in the parking lot of the feed and supply store. To these farmers, there was little separation between family history and land history.

Cliff Koster in Tracy, California. Photo by Michael Macor, Oakland Tribune, March 1991. Water Resources Collections and Archives, UC-Riverside.

Cliff Koster in Tracy, California. Photo by Michael Macor, Oakland Tribune, March 1991. Water Resources Collections and Archives, UC-Riverside.

Cliff Koster died in 2007 at the age of 84. But his story might endure in us as his ancestors’ did in him. The past in which Koster lived does not look so different from our present. Though climate change has come to be debated as a causal agent of drought in a way that was only just beginning in the early 1990s, and though almonds today carry a more fraught meaning than they did then, we begin to recognize that past droughts, when broken down to their constitutive parts, come to resemble the present one. The current drought may be unprecedented, but it is not unrecognizable.

In peering backwards, we might also see resemblance that we would rather not see. The Californians of the past encountered their own limits, blamed their own gods and neighbors, and struggled to find their own peace. During the last drought, environmentalists protected the fish, farmers tapped groundwater beyond their means, suburbanites watered their clandestine lawns, and all blamed one another. It is at once disheartening how little things have changed since then, uncanny how fears of the future then mirrored those of today, and humbling that we now find ourselves discerning wisdom from a previous drought whose causes were similarly complex.

But there is also a tenderness in the imperfect humanity of the past, in the recognition of ourselves in our ancestors, and in our common desire for explanations. Koster’s story remains instructive as one of many, not only because we stand to learn from his inherited knowledge, but also because the future requires that we re-envision and re-enliven the past. The past and the future thus create one another through telling and re-telling stories—a process that cultural geographer Caitlin DeSilvey calls “anticipatory history,” comprised of “the dense weave of individual memories, shared experiences, and personally significant landmarks that makes up our understanding of where we are, and where we have been.”1 These stories allow us to grasp the kinds of adjustments that we might make to weather drought in our own future lives, as does the prospect of changing behavior require that we conjure the past in fresh ways by telling new stories. Koster’s story represents the kind that cannot be heard if we dwell only on the prospect of our own demise and seek solutions only derived from our visible present.

A Hundred Rivers Run Through It. Photo by Robert Dawson, Harpers Magazine, June 1998. Water Resources Collections and Archives, UC-Riverside.

A Hundred Rivers Run Through It. Photo by Robert Dawson, Harpers Magazine, June 1998. Water Resources Collections and Archives, UC-Riverside.

It may seem peculiar that I have used the collective pronouns “us” and “we” to speak of a crisis occurring largely in California. Indeed, it is the landowners and residents of California whose stories most deserve to be told and heard. But California’s drought also illustrates how prophecies derived from crisis more generally might more fully capture the past in their visions of the future. And in this sense, the drought is but one example of the crises we all face, the stories we all tell, and the pasts and futures we all share.

Might we imagine a kind of prophecy that casts a world to come in terms of an always becoming past? Might we envision a future that is more tempered, a present more forgiving, and a past more alive? And might voices emerge that we didn’t know existed, reminding us of our hard times during abundance, our creativity during scarcity, and our moderation throughout? In dry times, these voices are like water itself.

Featured image: A dry Folsom Lake, California, 2014. Photo by flickr user Robert Cause-Baker (CC-BY-2.0).

Daniel Grant is a graduate student in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research focuses on the relationship between environmental time and the meanings people make out of natural disasters. He is at work on a master’s thesis that contrasts responses to floods and droughts in the Central Valley of California to explore meanings attached to fast and slow natural disasters. Contact.

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  1. Caitlin DeSilvey, Simon Naylor, and Colin Sakkett, Anticipatory History (Devon: Uniformbooks, 2011), 15. 

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