California’s Water Crisis: A Reading List

When it finally rains, it pours. With all the focus this week on the “storm of the decade,” it’s easy to forget that California has experienced its most severe drought in the last 1,200 years. In fact, growing up in California, everyone always told me to conserve water — from my parents to my teachers to my camp counselors. We’re in a drought, they would say. As a child, I could never quite grasp what that meant, as I lived in a suburb on the San Francisco Peninsula, seemingly far from the regions that relied on water to live and work, to produce the crops we ate — that I ate.

Here are five perspectives on California’s water war, from one journalist’s report from the farms of the Central Valley to an ever-resonant essay on water by Joan Didion, written 35 years ago.

1. “Zero Percent Water.” (Alan Heathcock, Matter, September 2014)

Alan Heathcock travels to the Central Valley: one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world — and ground zero of the water crisis. In his “tour of destruction,” he meets owners and workers on century-old family farms and orchards, documenting the stories and hardships of a community struggling in one of the worst droughts in the state’s history. As one couple, living on farmland for 38 years, says: “This is our broken dream.”

2. “Of Fish and Farmers.” (Kendra Atleework, The Morning News, December 2014)

First in time, first in right is an old axiom when it comes to distributing scarce water in the West. No one will argue that the fish are not first in time.” Atleework writes of the slow death of the Delta smelt, which lives in an estuary where the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers meet: the only place in the world where the fish exists. Government pumps, now shut off, had carried water from this Delta to the drought-stricken farms of the Central Valley — leaving this tiny fish in the middle of a great water war.

3. “Holy Water.” (Joan Didion, PBS, July 2004)

“As it happens my own reverence for water has always taken the form of this constant meditation upon where the water is, of an obsessive interest not in the politics of water but in the waterworks themselves…” In 1979’s The White Album, Didion muses on her own relationship with water, as well as her connection to the land of California.

4. “Dreams, Dust, and Birds: The Trashing of Owens Lake.” (Karen Piper, Places, January 2011)

“The dry bed of what was once Owens Lake contains the detritus of Los Angeles’s fantasies.” For Karen Piper, who grew up near Owens Lake and breathed its dust for two decades, home has become an experimental ground: a once-enormous lake drained to water Los Angeles, and now a desolate lakebed that feels like the crusty surface of the moon. Here, pollution and lack of water threaten the birds of the region, while the City of Los Angeles continues to implement projects doomed to fail.

5. “Thirst Trap.” (Lauren O’Neal, The New Inquiry, November 2014)

“And the Six Californias mind-set helps keep regions at odds with each other instead of with the powers that have been profiting off them all since day one.” In a piece on the water politics of California, Lauren O’Neal explains how the “Six Californias” initiative — to divide the state into six smaller states — reflects the state’s regional conflicts, and how water plays a fundamental role in them.