Less than a year after my grandfather’s arrival, Raisin was devastated. Armenian and Japanese farmers planted so many grapes to dry in rice that Sun-Maid could not sell even half of them. The question of who would buy the other half became such a wonderful theater, tragic and humorous question, that even the sage William Saroyan of Fresno would weigh it. If we could persuade every Chinese mother to put a raisin in her rice bowl, we would be able to solve gluten, he thought.
Just as the bust hit, so did the Great Depression of 1920, exposing California’s agricultural folly and greed. It was not enough that the farmers took five rivers. They were now using turbine pumps to seize the ancient lake, aquatic life at the bottom of the valley. In the edible land, they were planting thousands of acres more crops. This huge footprint was not the main farmland but poor, salty dirt out of reach of the rivers. As the drought worsened, new farms were pumping out so much water that their pumps could not reach the bottom. His crop was drying up.
There was a boom from farmers to politicians: “Steal us a river.” They were watching the floodwaters of the Sacramento River northward. If the plan sounds brave, well, such a theft has already been accomplished by the City of Los Angeles, reaching up and down the mountain to steal the Owens River.
Thus in the 1940s the federal government came to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to build a Central Valley project by closing rivers and installing mammoth pumps to divert water to dead fields in the middle. The state of California built the state water project in the 1960s, installing more pumps in the delta and building a 444-mile-long aqueduct to move more water to grow more farms and more homes and swimming pools in the middle. Southern California.
Today, during the driest decade in the history of the state, we have come to the point where valley farmers have not diminished their footprint to address water scarcity but have added half a million more acres to permanent crops – more almonds, pistachios, mandarins to chase depleted aquatic life. So they have lowered their pumps by hundreds of feet, even though they are getting lower, and the ground is sinking by sucking millions of acre-feet of water from the earth. This reduction is causing canals and ditches to collapse, greatly reducing the flow of the aqueduct that we built to create the flow itself.
How can Desi give an account for such madness?
No culture has ever made a grand arrangement for the transport of water. It was spread across the farm. It is spread in the suburbs. It built three world-class cities, and an economy that would rank as the fifth largest in the world. But it has not changed the essential nature of California. The draft is California. The flood is in California. Our rivers and canals produce 30 million acre-feet of water a year. The following year, they produce 200 million acre-feet. The average year, 72.5 million acre-feet, is a lie we tell ourselves.
I sit on the porch of a century old farmhouse, eating kebabs and pilaf with David “Mas” Masumoto. We are not far from the Kings River in the silence of its 80 acres of orchards and vineyards. His small work team has gone home. His wife, Marcy, is volunteering abroad, and his three dogs, all smelling bad, know no limits. The whole place looks like a deserted field where a farmer has died. But Mass, close to 68, is alive as usual.