A tale of two droughts

Despite recent sporadic rain, California is still in the worst extended drought in its brief recorded history. If more storms do not arrive, the old canard that California could withstand two droughts — but never three — will be tested for the first time in memory.

Victor hansan2

There is little snow in the state’s towering Sierra Nevada mountains, the source of much of the surface water that supplies the state’s populated center and south. The vast Central Valley aquifer is being tapped as never before, as farms and municipalities deepen wells and boost pump size. Too many straws are now competing to suck out the last drops at the bottom of the collective glass.

The vast 4-million-acre farming belt along the west side of the Central Valley is slowly drying up. Unlike valley agriculture to the east that still has a viable aquifer, these huge farms depend entirely on surface water deliveries from the distant and usually wet northern part of the state. So if the drought continues, billions of dollars of Westside orchards and vineyards will die, row cropland will lay fallow, and farm-supported small towns will likewise dry up.

There is a terrible irony to all this. Never have California farm prices been higher, given huge Pacific export demand. Never have California farmers been more savvy in saving water to produce record harvests of nutritious, clean and safe food. And never has farming been so central to a state suffering from the aftershocks of a housing collapse, chronic high unemployment, overregulation and the nation’s highest sales, income and gas taxes.

Yet there are really two droughts — nature’s, and its man-made twin. In the early 1980s, when the state was not much more than half its current population, an affluent coastal corridor convinced itself that nirvana was possible, given the coastal world-class universities, the new: dot.com: riches of the Silicon Valley, the year-round temperate weather, and the booming entertainment, tourism and wine industries.

Despite recent sporadic rain, California is still in the worst extended drought in its brief recorded history. If more storms do not arrive, the old canard that California could withstand two droughts — but never three — will be tested for the first time in memory.

There is little snow in the state’s towering Sierra Nevada mountains, the source of much of the surface water that supplies the state’s populated center and south. The vast Central Valley aquifer is being tapped as never before, as farms and municipalities deepen wells and boost pump size. Too many straws are now competing to suck out the last drops at the bottom of the collective glass.

The vast 4-million-acre farming belt along the west side of the Central Valley is slowly drying up. Unlike valley agriculture to the east that still has a viable aquifer, these huge farms depend entirely on surface water deliveries from the distant and usually wet northern part of the state. So if the drought continues, billions of dollars of Westside orchards and vineyards will die, row cropland will lay fallow, and farm-supported small towns will likewise dry up.

There is a terrible irony to all this. Never have California farm prices been higher, given huge Pacific export demand. Never have California farmers been more savvy in saving water to produce record harvests of nutritious, clean and safe food. And never has farming been so central to a state suffering from the aftershocks of a housing collapse, chronic high unemployment, overregulation and the nation’s highest sales, income and gas taxes.

(Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of “The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern” You can reach him by e-mailing: [email protected].)

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