Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

A Tale of Four Droughts

by Victor Davis Hanson // PJMedia

A warning buoy sits on the dry, cracked bed of Lake Mendocino near Ukiah, California. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

A warning buoy sits on the dry, cracked bed of Lake Mendocino near Ukiah, California. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

California is not suffering one drought, but four. Each is a metaphor of what California has become.


The first California drought, of course, is natural. We are now in the midst of a fourth year of record low levels of snow and rain.

Californians have no idea that their state is a relatively recent construct — only 165 years old, with even less of a pedigree of accurate weather keeping. When Europeans arrived in California in the 15th and 16th centuries, they were struck by how few indigenous peoples lived in what seemed paradise — only to learn that the region was quite dry on the coast and in the interior.

Today, modern Californians have no idea of whether a four-year drought is normal, in, say, a 5,000 natural history of the region, or is aberrant — as wet years are long overdue and will return with a vengeance. That we claim to know what to expect from about 150 years of recordkeeping does not mean that we know anything about what is normal in nature’s brief millennia. Our generation may be oblivious to that fact, but our far more astute and pragmatic forefathers certainly were not.


If one studies the literature on the history and agendas of the California State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project, two observations are clear. One, our ancestors brilliantly understood that Californians always would wish to work and live in the center and south of the state. They accepted that where 75% of the population wished to live, only 25% of the state’s precipitation fell. Two, therefore they designed huge transfer projects from Northern California that was wet and sparsely settled, southward to where the state was dry and populated. They assumed that northerners wanted less water and relief from flooding, and southerners more water and security from drought, and thus their duty was to accommodate both.

Nor were these plans ossified. Indeed, they were envisioned as expanding to meet inevitable population increases. The Temperance Flat, Los Banos Grandes, and Sites reservoirs were planned in wet years as safety deposits, once higher reservoirs emptied. As population grew larger, dams could be raised at Shasta and Oroville. Or huge third-phase reservoirs like the vast Ah Pah project on the Klamath River might ensure the state invulnerability from even 5-6 year droughts.

One can say what one wishes about the long ago cancelled huge Ah Pah project — what would have been the largest manmade reservoir project in California history — but its additional 15 million acre feet of water would be welcomed today. Perhaps such a vast project was mad. Perhaps it was insensitive to local environmental and cultural needs. Perhaps the costs were prohibitive — a fraction of what will be spent on the proposed high-speed rail project. Perhaps big farming would not pay enough of the construction costs. But one cannot say that its 15 million acre feet of water storage would not have been life-giving in a year like this.

In any case, Ah Pah was no more environmentally unsound than is the Hetch Hetchy Project, without which there would be no Silicon Valley today as we now know it. One cannot say that hundreds of millions of public dollars have not gone to environmentalists, in and outside of government and academia, to subsidize their visions of the future that did not include food production and power generation for others. They are no less subsidized than the corporate farmers they detest.

One of the ironies of the current drought is that urbanites who cancelled these projects never made plans either to find more water or to curb population. Take the most progressive environmentalist in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, and the likelihood is that his garden and bath water are the results of an engineering project of the sort he now opposes.


The state and federal water projects were envisioned as many things — flood control, hydroelectric generation, irrigation, and recreation. One agenda was not fish restoration. Perhaps it should have been. But our forefathers never envisioned building dams and reservoirs to store water to ensure year-round fish runs in our rivers — a mechanism to improve on the boom-and-bust cycle of nature, in which 19th century massive spring flooding was naturally followed by August and September low, muddy, or dry valley rivers.

Engineering alone could ensure an unnatural river, where flows could be adjusted all year long, almost every year, by calibrated releases from artificial lakes, ensuring about any sort of river salmon or delta bait fish population one desired. One may prefer catching a salmon near Fresno to having a $70 billion agricultural industry, but these days one cannot have both. Releasing water to the ocean in times of drought was not the intention of either the California State Water Project or the Central Valley Project; again, it may be a better idea than what the old engineers had planned on, but it is predicated on the idea that those living in Mendota or working in Coalinga are an unfortunately unnatural species, at least in comparison to river salmon and bait fish.


Even with drought, cancellations of dams, and diversions of contracted water to the ocean, California might well not have been imperiled by the present drought — had its population stayed at about 20 million when most of the water projects were cancelled in the mid-1970s. Unfortunately the state is now 40 million — and growing. Illegal immigration — half of all undocumented aliens live in California — has added millions to the state population. And agriculture is a key route for Mexican immigrants to reach the middle class. Either the state should insist on closing the borders and encourage emigration out of state to no-tax states (which is already happening at about the rate of 1000 to 2000 people per week), or it should build the infrastructure and create the job opportunities to accommodate newcomers in a semi-arid landscape. That would mean that the vast 4-6 million-acre west side of California’s Central Valley remains irrigated, and that there is continued water made available to a 500-mile dry coastal corridor to accommodate a huge influx of immigrants.

Is it liberal or illiberal to ensure that there will be no new water for a vast new San Jose south of San Jose, or that there will prohibitions on immigration and population growth that would halt a new San Jose? Perhaps the liberal position would be for Silicon Valley grandees to relocate to the wet and rainy Klamath River Basin, where it could grow without unnaturally imported water from the Sierra Nevada. In a truly eco-friendly state, Stanford and Berkeley would open new satellite campuses near the Oregon border to match people with water.

One reality we know does not work: deliberate retardation of infrastructure to discourage consumption and population growth, in the manner of Jerry Brown’s small-is-beautiful campaign of the 1970s. Ossifying the 99 and 101 freeways at 1960s levels did not discourage drivers from using them. It only ensured slower commute times, more fossil fuel emissions, and far more dangerous conditions, as more drivers fought for less driving space.

Not building dams and reservoirs did not mean fewer people would have water or food and thus would not keep coming to California, but only that there would be ever more competition — whether manifested in tapping further the falling aquifer or rationing residential usage — for shrinking supplies.

One theme characterizes California’s attitude about water. Liberal orthodoxy is never consistent. While it may be seen as progressive to champion river and delta restoration or to divert reservoir water for scenic and environmental use, or to discourage more development of agricultural acreage, the results in the real world are hardly liberal.

The poor and the middle classes usually bear the brunt of these policies in terms of reduced job opportunities and a slower economy. Exemption from the ramifications of one’s ideology characterize what can only be called a rich man’s utopian dreams: divert San Joaquin River water for fish, but not Hetch Hetchy water that supplies the Bay Area; talk of bulldozing almond trees, but not golf courses from Indian Wells to Pebble Beach to the Presidio; ensuring less water to poor foothill and Westside communities, but not pulling out the lush gardens or emptying the swimming pools of those who live in La Jolla, Bel Air, Carmel Valley, Woodside, and Presidio Heights.

To paraphrase Tacitus, they make a desert and call it liberal.

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About victorhanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture. He recently published an historical novel The End of Sparta (2012), a realistic retelling of Epaminondas invasion and liberation of Spartan-control Messenia. In The Father of Us All (2011), he collected earlier essays on warfare ancient and modern. His upcoming history The Savior Generals(2013) analyzes how five generals in the history of the West changed the course of battles against all odds. He was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson, who was the fifth successive generation to live in the same house on his family’s farm, was a full-time orchard and vineyard grower from 1980-1984, before joining the nearby CSU Fresno campus in 1984 to initiate a classical languages program. In 1991, he was awarded an American Philological Association Excellence in Teaching Award, which is given yearly to the country’s top undergraduate teachers of Greek and Latin. Hanson has been a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, California (1992-93), a visiting professor of classics at Stanford University (1991-92), a recipient of the Eric Breindel Award for opinion journalism (2002), an Alexander Onassis Fellow (2001), and was named alumnus of the year of the University of California, Santa Cruz (2002). He was also the visiting Shifrin Professor of Military History at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland (2002-3). He received the Manhattan Institute’s Wriston Lectureship in 2004, and the 2006 Nimitz Lectureship in Military History at UC Berkeley in 2006. Hanson is the author of hundreds of articles, book reviews, scholarly papers, and newspaper editorials on matters ranging from ancient Greek, agrarian and military history to foreign affairs, domestic politics, and contemporary culture. He has written or edited 17 books, including Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece (1983; paperback ed. University of California Press, 1998); The Western Way of War (Alfred Knopf, 1989; 2d paperback ed. University of California Press, 2000); Hoplites: The Ancient Greek Battle Experience (Routledge, 1991; paperback., 1992); The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization(Free Press, 1995; 2nd paperback ed., University of California Press, 2000);Fields without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea (Free Press, 1996; paperback, Touchstone, 1997; The Bay Area Book reviewers Non-fiction winner for 1996); The Land Was Everything: Letters from an American Farmer (Free Press, 2000; a Los Angeles Times Notable book of the year); The Wars of the Ancient Greeks (Cassell, 1999; paperback, 2001); The Soul of Battle (Free Press, 1999, paperback, Anchor/Vintage, 2000); Carnage and Culture (Doubleday, 2001; Anchor/Vintage, 2002; a New York Times bestseller); An Autumn of War (Anchor/Vintage, 2002); Mexifornia: A State of Becoming (Encounter, 2003),Ripples of Battle (Doubleday, 2003), and Between War and Peace (Random House, 2004). A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War, was published by Random House in October 2005. It was named one of the New York Times Notable 100 Books of 2006. Hanson coauthored, with John Heath, Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom (Free Press, 1998; paperback, Encounter Press, 2000); with Bruce Thornton and John Heath, Bonfire of the Humanities (ISI Books, 2001); and with Heather MacDonald, and Steven Malanga, The Immigration Solution: A Better Plan Than Today’s (Ivan Dee 2007). He edited a collection of essays on ancient warfare, Makers of Ancient Strategy (Princeton University Press, 2010). Hanson has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, International Herald Tribune, New York Post, National Review, Washington Times, Commentary, The Washington Post, Claremont Review of Books, American Heritage, New Criterion, Policy Review, Wilson Quarterly, Weekly Standard, Daily Telegraph, and has been interviewed often on National Public Radio, PBS Newshour, Fox News, CNN, and C-Span’s Book TV and In-Depth. He serves on the editorial board of the Military History Quarterly, and City Journal. Since 2001, Hanson has written a weekly column for National Review Online, and in 2004, began his weekly syndicated column for Tribune Media Services. In 2006, he also began thrice-weekly blog for Pajamas Media, Works and Days. Hanson was educated at the University of California, Santa Cruz (BA, Classics, 1975, ‘highest honors’ Classics, ‘college honors’, Cowell College), the American School of Classical Studies, Athens (regular member, 1978-79) and received his Ph.D. in Classics from Stanford University in 1980. He divides his time between his forty-acre tree and vine farm near Selma, California, where he was born in 1953, and the Stanford campus.

22 Thoughts on “A Tale of Four Droughts

  1. Extended droughts, as in Syria from 2005 to the present, can destablize societies, create a need to scapegoat, and ISIS gains a foothold, a promise to simpler times.

  2. John Keyes on March 16, 2015 at 8:33 am said:

    Population has made a big difference in water usage and the environmental community must remember: You cannot have ot both ways: Either save water with more dams or watch California become your utopian wasteland.

  3. Is there any region in the Northern Hemisphere that would be open to selling water, including Alaska and Canada that would be open to sell water in huge quantities… like say perhaps up to quadruple the amount used by the current California aqueducts?

    The US has a massive investment in underground tunnels some up to 42-foot diameter, lined with cement, transports systems and communications used by our military for obvious reasons. Just look up 42-foot tunnel boring machine. Why can’t we just tunnel in the water we need?

    So what if it costs many tens of billions?

    • Thirsty Kalifornian on March 18, 2015 at 10:13 am said:

      The Environmentalists, NIMBY’s and Lawyers will never allow tunnels or pipelines
      Best idea is to transport water from the flooded Mid-west and east by 35,000 to 40,000 gallon railroad tank car (if they can haul oil and gas they can haul water)
      And convert older supertankers to haul water from Alaska to the major ports in California
      And since they will never get rid of Illegal Invaders and their spawn or stop paying welfare to people to pump out more kinds the drought will only get worse
      It will be expensive but how much are you willing to pay when the tap will go dry

  4. Craig S. Bell on March 16, 2015 at 9:54 am said:

    There’s always large-scale desalinization, which – if you want it to work – requires building additional power sources… nuclear generation.
    There is of course a strong environmental case for nuclear power (for many uses), if you’re not a true-believing member of credentialed, faith-based green organizations.
    Desalinization is far from perfect; but it’s within our capabilities. We can learn from Carlsbad, and large projects in Israel and KSA.
    As with all the rest catalogued above, we merely lack the will to make a choice to keep living like civilized people.

  5. Relief from drought could come from mass deportations of illegals and enforcing our immigration laws. eventually nature has a way of disrupting the abuses of the water supplies the Marxists on the left coast have brought to fruition.

  6. Jaques Shellaque on March 16, 2015 at 12:42 pm said:

    A native San Franciscan, I moved east at age 19 to attend college and start a career. I had “survived”
    droughts, earthquakes, etc. but chose not to return. Climate is cyclical (DUH!) and unpredictable.
    Southern CA was a desert “wasteland” until residents demanded water from Northern CA, Colorado,
    et al, to make things grow. Now CA suffers from overpopulation, a ridiculously high cost of living, and
    sh—y socialistic attitudes from its residents. It could all fall into the ocean at any time, and personally,
    I won’t miss it.

  7. Jonathan Soss on March 16, 2015 at 2:24 pm said:

    Wow, great article. Whenever I see an article you’ve written re: CA water I get stop and read it. The thoughtfulness of your points and depth of understanding is unrivaled.

    I come from a long line of Southern Californians – many of my ancestors/relatives have been and are farmers in this state – and I know you are spot on with your explanation of the way things are, where we started, and how things changed.

    How do we get sanity back to our water policy again, when we’re being ‘ruled’ by the likes of Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Boxer, Jerry Brown, Environmental groups, etc.?

    • Alicia Rockwell on March 23, 2015 at 9:00 am said:

      Great comments Jonathan and thank you for sharing them. There is much work to do and we must remain vigilant and persistent. California has some good politicians working the issue and crossing party lines to do it(e.g., Central Valley Caucus). We need to all work together but like with most things in this State our poor planning has us behind the ball again.

  8. Most people I meet day to day want the drought to end and appreciate it is a problem. Very few of them have more than a passing knowledge of the duration and intensity of the historical droughts seen in the many proxy records paleo-climatologists have accumulated. Our current one is long and severe but odds are it will end next year or the year after. We’ll barely squeak through and conservation efforts will go into decline again, with no infrastructure projects put in place. However, this may be one of the big ones. A decadal pattern shift that will destroy the ag industry, once the groundwater is depleted. No one is prepared for this outcome. No one is preparing for this outcome. I’m not even sure there is a solution. Even the insane ideas, like taking Canada’s water and funneling it through the Rocky Mountain trench, may not be technically feasible even if a miracle happened and it was negotiated and approved. It may be time to move north.

  9. dupere on March 16, 2015 at 8:11 pm said:

    “”” california is turning back into a desert and there are no contingency plans”” from zero hedge. Great added color with the included 13 minute video from CBS show “60 minutes””. If video no longer available, worth finding on say CBS website or you-tube. Drinkable sewage water coming to the USA. Google “California desalination plants”. The USA is being destroyed before our very eyes, thank-god I’m old.

  10. Both the California drought and Texas drought are correlated with the installation of upwind windmill farms.

    If they are related the reduced rainfall is here to stay.

    If not related it is just a coincidence and normal rainfall is around the corner.

  11. Richard Moesley on March 18, 2015 at 12:09 am said:

    California’s water situation is not due to bad politics or progressive environmental programs to save bait fish, it’s due to the short sightedness of generations who thought they could live in a place that was never suited for large scale human populations. Growing crops in a location that was never suited to support them is ignorant. Growing rice in a semi-arid region, really? How stupid do you have to be?

    And don’t blame climate change. The region has never, ever had enough water to sustain large populations. That’s why it’s called semi-arid and it’s always been mostly grassland and scrub. Drive over the Altemont pass in July and you’ll see what the area was like 100, 200 or even 1,000 years ago. And no one lived there either back then.

    You can debate dams, water release and questionable political motivation on both sides all you want. The bottom line is politicians and policy don’t dictate snow and rain fall.

  12. dupere on March 18, 2015 at 8:45 am said:

    “”” california drought: state OKs sweeping restrictions on water use””” from SF gate. Democrat rule— detroit, chigago and now the entire State of California. So goes California, so goes the Nation.

  13. Jeff Elder on March 18, 2015 at 10:52 am said:

    Mother Nature doesn’t decide where water falls, physics does. Mother Nature just takes advantage of the water where it is. Mankind using its ability to move the water to where it’s needed only helps Mother Nature. To say it’s better for nature for man to move to the water instead of using our abilities to move water to where it is the most beneficial is crazy. How is a San Joaquin desert in the best interest of Mother Nature or mankind? Why is this so hard for Californians to understand?

  14. John the Econ on March 18, 2015 at 3:16 pm said:

    “One reality we know does not work: deliberate retardation of infrastructure to discourage consumption and population growth, in the manner of Jerry Brown’s small-is-beautiful campaign of the 1970s.”

    This is because environmental fascists honestly believe that demands upon resources can be reduced through “conservation”, meaning consuming less overall. Unfortunately, usually this means forcing reduced consumption upon someone else.

    It’s the sort of delusion that permits a President to demand that the middle class give up SUVs for bicycles while he and his wife on the same day fly separate Air Force jets cross country to visit California to hang out with TV stars.

  15. Steve Johnson on March 20, 2015 at 1:30 am said:

    One of the best articles I’ve ever read. As a long time resident meteorologist living in CA, I’ve never witnessed anything close to this Drought, it is a true disaster in the making for the Central California region. The previous Drought periods of 76-77 look like a visit from the tooth fairy compared to this beast. It is amazing to me that 5 million acre feet of water has been wasted out of the Delta this year which is an obscene amount of water that could have been put to much better use. Governor Moonbeam and his personally appointed State Water Board environmental EPA “greenies” have absolutely no clue whatsoever how the real world works or more importantly where their food comes from. Picking up stakes and moving out of CA seems like a logical answer to many recent inquiries. POP, there goes the housing market and then the rest of the economy. No water equals no civilization and for the hearing impaired in Sacramento and San Francisco…NO WATER EQUALS NO CIVILIZATION!!!

  16. easywriter on March 20, 2015 at 7:29 am said:

    Over 20 years ago, I moved from Los Angeles to Palo Alto. Fortunately, my stay was brief because the downfall started the first day when someone said, “You people steal our water!” As I looked around at the burgeoning Silicon Valley, I laughed. After all, my roots were in the San Joaquin Valley, a place was water for the production of crops siphoned off by everyone, we also got all the smog from Silicon Valley. But as long as the conventional wisdom was that So Cal was stealing Nor Cal’s water, and this was the only blame, then issues like illegal immigration and over population could be swept under the rug.
    There is a body of work in geology and climatology that studies ancient weather patterns/ What they’ve found are consistent patterns of drought and rain. We’re in a drought cycle now that will last many years. Those interested can look up the work of Roger Anderson, PhD, from University of New Mexico.

  17. noname on April 2, 2015 at 9:00 am said:

    Does anyone know the water consumption of agriculture vs the cities? The policy decision of sacrificing agriculture for environmental concerns is one issue. A separate issue is agriculture vs city use of water. For instance, if all of the “coastal elites'” showers and lawn waterings is only 1% of the water use, then having the city people cut back on showers will do close to nothing. It’s just a symbolic gesture of “doing something”, which could ease up on the pressure for actually solving problems. (“we’re doing our part, now stop farming water-intensive nuts!”).

    • Water is divided into this: 49% for environmental uses (delta smelt, restoring scenic rivers, etc…), 41% is agriculture, the rest is industrial/residential use.

  18. Fritz Steiner on April 8, 2015 at 8:29 am said:

    Another brilliant analysis by VDH. Todays’s Californians have little or no knowledge of the region’s climatological and geographic history. It’s a DESERT largely shielded by the Coast range.

    As one commentator put it, the State could be sustainable with a population of around 20 million, but it’s gone way past that today. The infrastructure — all of it — has not kept pace with the population growth and its ramifications.

    I once thought California was right next to paradise, but today it’s more like purgatory. Incredibly stupid environmental policies such as diverting water from the central valley to the sea to save some species of fish , and the Governor Moonbeam’s nonsensical and ultra expensive HSR project, exacerbate the problem, but they’re mere pin pricks when compared to the greater problem.

    The true nature of what CA faces today is the result of a nearly catastrophic failure in good times to anticipate bad times and the concurrent urgent necessity to prepare for them.

  19. Pingback: THE GREAT CALIFORNIA DROUGHT | Stephen Golay

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