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Desiccated Dreams

California's engineered cornucopia falters

Photography, Text, and Audio Slide Show by Matt Black

Published in the March/April 2011 issue of Orion magazine

THE YELLOW AND BLACK SIGNS announcing the start of California’s new water war began appearing in the spring of 2009: CONGRESS-CREATED DUSTBOWL. The Central Valley’s most productive stretch of farmland, the immense Westlands Water District, had seen its water supply cut by 90 percent to forestall the ecological collapse of the Sacramento Delta, the largest estuary on the Pacific coast and a crucial source of water for wildlife and humans. All along Interstate 5, the state’s main north-south highway, the signs were soon ubiquitous. Parked atop patches of barren farmland, they announced what appeared to be a modern-day agricultural apocalypse: 200,000 acres of the nation’s richest farmland out of production, unemployment above 40 percent in some towns, and bread lines stretching around the block.

Of course, the entire enterprise in the Westlands was likely to fail. Its folly seems painfully obvious today— turning a patch of semi-arid desert into farmland through the construction of a massive concrete river running in reverse, with water pumped uphill from the delta a hundred miles away. A creation of the same 1930s New Deal ambition that plugged the Colorado and Columbia rivers and brought electricity to much of the nation, California’s Central Valley Project and its huge aqueduct are from a time of unbridled engineering confidence. Today such certainty, such faith in the power of bulldozers, concrete, and the draftsman’s pen, seems unimaginably naïve and very nearly quaint— but its bequest is the modern American West.

These days the Westlands is home to the nation’s largest and richest farms—some cover more than ten square miles and rake in millions of dollars each year — but it is also home to some of the poorest towns in California. The average farm worker in the Westlands makes about $10,000 a year. While its bonanza harvests serviced by a near-feudal labor system are a throwback to another time, it’s no backwater. Each spring and fall, 90 percent of the nation’s lettuce comes from these fields, as well as the majority of many other crops, from almonds and cantaloupes to tomatoes and pomegranates. 

As I watch this ersatz abundance turn to dust, I’m left conflicted. When a group of farmers and politicians pose for news cameras in front of destitute housewives in a bread line, it feels outrageous. Don’t they know that families here have relied on food handouts for years? Are they really using their workers’ poverty —a poverty born of decades of exploitative wages — to get more subsidized water? 

But on the way out of town, as dusk falls and the landscape rolls by, the stretches of brown stick in my eye like bits of dust blown in. To watch crops wither and see farmland turn to dust feels deeply wrong, like watching civilization’s seams start to unravel. The Westlands might be a landscape imbued with an aura of corruption, but it is a human landscape, and once its thin green veneer is torn away, the makeshift community it supported — schools, homes, towns — is quickly reduced to an eerie tableau of dust storms and bouncing tumbleweed. At times such as this, the ecological havoc in the Sacramento Delta seems far away. 

I stop by a friend’s house, a Mexican migrant whom I’ve known on both sides of the border. His elderly parents, two of the sweetest people I have ever met, live in a remote Oaxacan village in a dirt-floor adobe house perched on the side of a mountain, scratching out a living on a small corn farm. Without the money their son sends them, about fifty dollars a month, both will soon be skipping meals. My friend tells me he hasn’t had work in six months, and the only money coming in is from the tacos his wife sells out of the back of a broken-down catering truck parked in their driveway. Next to the truck, he’s planted a sign: “No water, no life.”

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Matt Black's photography of rural California has been widely honored. He received the Robert F. Kennedy Prize for reporting on poverty, as well as awards from Picture of the Year International and the Alexia Foundation.

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