California: Running On Empty

by Victor Davis Hanson // PJ Media

In this June 3, 2015 photo provided by the California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, juvenile coho salmon, or fry, rescued from Green Valley Creek, a tributary of the Russian River, wait in a container to be relocated to suitable habitat in Santa Rosa, Calif. State water regulators want vineyards in Northern California’s Wine Country to start reporting how much groundwater they are pumping up, saying excessive withdrawals to irrigate grapes are draining creeks that host an endangered population of coho salmon. (Eric Larson/California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife via AP)
In this June 3, 2015 photo provided by the California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, juvenile coho salmon, or fry, rescued from Green Valley Creek, a tributary of the Russian River, wait in a container to be relocated to suitable habitat in Santa Rosa, Calif. State water regulators want vineyards in Northern California’s Wine Country to start reporting how much groundwater they are pumping up, saying excessive withdrawals to irrigate grapes are draining creeks that host an endangered population of coho salmon. (Eric Larson/California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife via AP)

The air in the San Joaquin Valley this late-June is, of course, hot and dry, but also dustier and more full of particulates than usual. This year a strange flu reached epidemic proportions. I say strange, because after the initial viral symptoms subsided, one’s cough still lingered for weeks and even months. Antibiotics did not seem to faze it. Allergy clinics were full. Almost every valley resident notices that when orchards and vineyards are less watered, when row cropland lies fallow, when lawns die and blow away, when highway landscaping dries up, nature takes over and the air becomes even filthier. Green elites lecture that agriculture is unnatural, without any idea why pre-civilized, pre-irrigated, and “natural” California was an empty place, whose dry, hazy climate and dusty winds made life almost impossible. The state is running on empty.

Domestic and agricultural wells are going dry all over Central California, especially in the corridors south of Fresno to the Grapevine, along the Sierra Nevada foothills, and out west of the 99 Freeway — anywhere there is not a deep aquifer. I have never seen anything quite like this water madness in 60 years, as families scrimp and borrow to drill, or simply move to town to take advantage of municipal wells. I have developed a habit as I drive to work to Stanford of counting the abandoned homes I see west of Highway 41 (sort of like counting those who sit in Wal-Mart not to shop, but to enjoy the air conditioning they cannot afford).  The number increases each week.  Retired couples — or families in general — apparently do not have tens of thousands of dollars to drill a deeper well, especially given the uncertainty of how fast the dropping water table will soon make their investment superfluous. Without water, there is nothing.

Some dry farmland is turning into vacant parcels. Many rural homes must have potable water trucked in. Hispanics who recently immigrated to California and bought or rented older homes with shallow wells in these areas of the valley countryside have no money to drill deeper $30,000 domestic wells. Nor do many poor whites, who often live in isolated communities in the foothills. Who has the capital to gamble on finding scarce water in dicey granite seams?  There is no water in the reservoirs left to recharge the water table or to fill canals that can be tapped for domestic use.

Along the vast West Side of the Central Valley thousands of acres lie fallow — a euphemism that does not reflect the dust that arises from neglected fields. Thousands of acres of West Side nut orchards seem like they are beginning to wither, as insufficient and brackish water from 1,000-foot wells after four years has fatally taxed the trees. The idea that in such crisis times of the last four years anyone would have released millions of acre-feet of precious stored fresh water to the ocean is profoundly immoral. The thought that anyone would oppose the creation of more reservoirs to accommodate a thirsty state population of 40 million is morally bankrupt.


We suffer in California from a particular form of progressive immorality predicated on insular selfishness. The water supplies of Los Angeles and the Bay Area are still for a year longer in good shape, despite the four-year drought. Neither area is self-sufficient in water; their aquifers are marginal and only supply a fraction of their daily needs. Instead these megalopolises depend on intricate and expensive water transfer systems — from Northern California, from the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and from the Colorado River — that bring water and life to quite unnatural habitats and thereby allow a MGM or Facebook to thrive in an arid landscape that otherwise would not support such commerce and population. Without them, Atherton would look like Porterville [1].

Quiet engineers in the shadows make it all work; the loud activists in the media seek to make it unwind. These transfers have sterling legal authority and first claims on mountain and northern state water. If Latinos in Lemon Cove are going without household water, Pyramid Lake on I-5 or Crystal Springs Reservoir on 280 are still full to the brim.

Why then do those who have access to water delivered in a most unnatural way seek to curtail supplies to others? In a word, because they are either ignorant of where their own water comes from or they have not a shred of concern for others less blessed, or both. We will confirm this ethical schizophrenia should a fifth year of drought ensue. Then even the most sacrosanct rights of transferred water will not be sufficient to accommodate the San Francisco and Los Angeles basins. Mass panic and outrage will probably follow, and no one will care a bit about the delta smelt, or a few hundred salmon artificially planted into the San Joaquin River watershed, or a spotted toad that holds up construction of an urgently needed reservoir.

The greens who pontificate about the need to return the San Joaquin watershed to its 19th-century ecosystem will become pariahs. When the taps run dry in Hillsborough and Bel-Air, very powerful people will demand water for their desert environs, which will in fact begin to return to the deserts that they always were as the thin veneer of civilization is scraped away.

The pretensions and vanity of postmodern civilization will do no good. What value is the ubiquity of transgendered restrooms, when there is no water in the toilet or sink? Who needs a reservoir on the back nine, when there is no water for putting greens? Who cares whether plastic grocery bags are outlawed, when one cannot afford the tomatoes or peaches to put in a paper bag? What does it matter whether the homeless or ex-felons are ensured a job on the high-speed rail project, when there is no money or water to build it? Who cares about a new Apple watch, when he stinks to high heaven without a shower?

Let us face elemental reality. A 40-million person California is an iffy place. It is entirely dependent on a sophisticated, man-created infrastructure of dams, reservoirs, canals, pumps, freeways, rail lines, airports, and schools and universities. Given that the population continues to rise, and given that one in four Californians was not born in the United States and is often poor (California has the largest population in real and relative numbers below the poverty line; one sixth of the nation on welfare payments of some sort lives in California), there is no margin of safety. A drought is but a metaphor about the collapse of an entire way of living.

Years ago the state should have ensured that its north-south state and federal laterals — I-5, the 99, and 101 — were completely three-lane freeways, if road carnage and bottlenecks were to be averted. Years ago, we should have added 20 million acre-feet of reservoir storage as our forefathers warned. We should have not released a single gallon of water for theoretical fish restoration, unless the reservoirs had at least a five-year supply of water, insurance for a drought like the present catastrophe.

There should have been direct, non-stop freight rail lines from Oregon to San Diego, before we even dreamed of high-speed rail, whose engineering and operational requirements seem beyond the expertise of the present state. We should have not instituted any “-studies” courses in our state universities until entering students met all math and English requirements and passed an exit exam upon graduation. What good does it do to be politically sensitive when one cannot read or compute at a college level?

We should have either curbed immigration into the state, or ensured adequate affordable housing projects for those whom we welcomed in. Instead, we ignored immigration law and then adopted a “I got mine, Jack” attitude of selfishness, of forbidding new housing construction on the logic that the Silicon Valley grandee would rather have his landscaper live in a Winnebago parked behind a Redwood City cottage than in an affordable condo in the vast empty 280 corridor expanse.

If our biologists and environmentalist were honest folk, they would have said to the public, “Please do not come into California; we instead prefer to restore salmon in our rivers than to provide jobs and drinking water for you. We like looking at open spaces from our backyard decks, not at new housing tracts. And we like a state of the well-heeled in clean-fueled, gas-less Priuses, not the poor puttering around in smoggy used Crown Victorias. The more costly we make gasoline and electrical power, the less we will use of it — even if that hurts you far more than it hurts us.”

But they were not especially veracious sorts, and so they went ahead to turn California into a state fit for 20 million, even as it grew to 40 million — while doing their best to be shielded from the ramifications of their own ideologies.  The logical result of the Bay Area grandee’s world view is East Porterville [2], not the Berkeley foothills. If those who run the state would just live where the poor do, we would have reservoirs galore, futuristic freeways, and affordable housing.  If the children of the elite fought for a slot at Cal State Stanislaus rather than Stanford, California would be quite a different place.

If it does not rain or snow soon, we are going to see things unimaginable.


URLs in this post:

[1] Porterville:,_California

[2] East Porterville:,_California

Copyright © 2015 Works and Days. All rights reserved.

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40 thoughts on “California: Running On Empty”

  1. I have the solution. [SciFi fans know this success story from ‘Forbidden Planet.’] Keep saying, “We are not the Krell. We cannot possibly think our way into catastrophe.”

  2. Proudly Unaffiliated

    California has been running on intellectual and moral empty for decades. The chickens are coming home to roost.

  3. Victor, you don’t get the post-modern world, do you? If you need water, why don’t you just google it?

    Besides, there are people much more in need. Just think of the refugees stranded on some Italian island desperate for water. Pictures in this article would raise millions in relief funds.

    I wonder what all this means in dry California in practical terms? Do millions of people sit on relief-pits as the water-flush toilet went dry?

    Is it possible that the oligarchs of Silicon Valley united in a cartel called CalProm are now in control and in charge of water supply for all of California?

    I sense a situation where we could actually learn from the indigenous people. Was it possibly wise and moral when Omar Sharif killed a beduin for drinking from his well while the crew were shooting “Lawrence of Arabia” in the hot hot desert?

    Or think of “Soylent Green”. An entire state is struck by a drought called “Caltrina”. There is but one remedy. Extract water from dead bodies and secretly feed it into the water delivery pipes.

    Talking about green. That word used to specify a color. That is the color of trees and grass. No water – no vegetation. No vegetation – no green. I write this to remind the Prius-pious believer of the true meaning of words in the language formerly known as English. Listen to the received wisdom of the ages! When “Kermit” loved to be green he meant the actual color.

    Does reducing civilization’s carbon footprint demand reducing the footprint of common-sense on civilization first? From a standpoint of common-sense California without water is the next thing to North Korea without food. Whatever is worse.

  4. Bruce Schwartz

    I’ve visited California many times and lived there in the 1970’s while serving in the Air Force. What a beautiful state – it was populated by many accomplished and freedom loving people at the time. Then the idiots showed up and gave us politically correct, stupid thinking – unfortunately they are is academia and government. Gov. Moonbeam was governor while I was there in the 70’s and he hasn’t learned a thing after all these years – he’s still crazy.
    My heart goes out to those good people in the valley, good farming/agriculture folks that work hard and ask for nothing but to be left alone and do what they do to get by.
    I happen to live in Michigan where water has never been a problem. I used to think I’d like to live elsewhere, what a foolish thought. Without water, no life. I’m sorry you and other well meaning Californians are going through this.

  5. I feel your pain and disgust at the miserable situation in California. Excellent portrayal of the grand stupidity on display over the past several decades that has ruined a beautiful land. When people claim to worship Mother Earth but don’t even bother to understand her ‘nature’, they are beyond stupid and ignorant. They believe they are god and are immune to consequences of poor decisions because they think they can just make someone else pay the price. When they have the facts about her ‘nature’ and do not plan to accommodate her, they are foolish.

  6. Why do I think that conservative skepticism of man made climate change will be the blamed for the drought and years of failed liberal policies never be discussed.

    1. I worry about that as well. Especially because the left has total dominance of the news media AND education systems.

  7. If there is a God in heaven, perhaps there will be drought-ending rain only after you can smell in tar burning in Sacramento’s capital grounds, and the feathers are so thick in the air you must cover your nose.

    Actually, if California legislators would outlaw public funding of “Progressive-Retardnation Worldview” pedagogy, this would eliminate so much confusion that I am sure the Devil himself would cause rain in California, to thank the one party state for eliminating the source of future generational confusion and decline.

  8. Kathleen Zaker

    I am praying for California. This breaks my heart; we in the heartland have always admired the cornucopia called California. California’s condition will be the country’s condition if we do not turn from leftism. Perhaps the heartland’s specific blight will not be arid, uninhabitable lands; but we will face consequences nonetheless. God help us.

  9. The classic novel— A tale of Two Cities.( wikipedia). “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” Sadly for Cali, there are proven answers and it starts with an R, symbolized by an elephant. But more Dickens–” It was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief “. Test the current stars on the Left in California. O’malley is out, no rain to tax. Bernie? Last thing the Golden State needs is more capital flight and the Zuckhead wouldn’t dig a 90% tax, scratch that. We are left with the gaze of Medusa. Not a clue what a reset button would do for Cali’s lost dream, other than “seeing things unimaginable.”

  10. I’ve got a good “Progressive” idea:
    Lets let inmates run asylums.
    Face it VDH….your intelligent quotient is at the extreme right of the Bell curve.
    Most of our 40 million neighbors are at the extreme left.
    (With politicians to the left of that)
    I suppose that’s what’s meant by the “Left” and the “Right”.

  11. I’ve long argued that modern “environmentalism” was exclusively the product of affluence. Society as a whole only had the resources to “care” about the greater environment after all of their base needs (water, food, shelter, and a certain level of social-economic security) had been met. The “poor” and insecure do not have the surplus resources of time or material wealth to worry about “environmental issues” when they are exclusively focused on where their next meal will be coming from. (You don’t see a lot of teeth gnashing about native species and climate change in greater Somalia)

    In a more honest democracy, California’s problems might be self-correcting. After all, polling suggests that the majority of Californians aren’t interested in open borders, faucets going dry, or countless billions spent on a high-speed train to nowhere instead of improving inadequate highways.

    Honest education about both the environment and the importance of infrastructure in safely sustaining a population and the environment would go a long way to remediate the problem. And yet I have no doubt that as well versed as today’s California school children are in the peril of “climate change” and “carbon footprints”, most haven’t a clue as to where their water comes from or how it gets to them, or the carbon footprint required in making that happen.

    As you point out, post-modern environmentalism is exclusively directed by coastal elites with above average comfort and security in their lives, and are well insulated from the greater implications of their agendas. (It’s a hypocritical and unjust societal structure well illustrated in “The Hunger Games”, which people seem to easily understand in fictional form) As long as their water continues to flow and they can still afford to eat, or they are otherwise faced with the consequences of their politics, little will change. And by then, it may be too late to fix.

  12. Please don’t use the word, “progressive.” It is the refuge of those who have shrugged and spun their way out from under the two properly-tainted words, “liberal” and “leftist.” There is nothing progressive about them. Excellent column, though.

    1. John the Econ

      Unfortunately, there’s very little that is “liberal” about today’s liberals. Outside of issues regarding sexuality and race, (where now pretty much anything goes) the people we used to call “liberals” are now politically somewhere between “fascist” and “communist”.

      “Progressive” is a more politically accurate description. The formally recognized “Progressive Movement” is what replaced the communist movement in the early part of the 20th century after the communists discovered that Americans really weren’t interested in communism. “Progressivism” was a softer sell, sounded better and masked the real agenda. After all, who’s against “progress”?

      Either way, “Progressive” is an accurate political description of these people, even though what they represent has little to do with actual progress for society.

      1. I couldn’t agree with more, todays liberals are fascist and communist who are in control of this state. Just look who has all the water and power to control the politicians and influence the courts. The yare choking the Central Valley dry, fundamentally changing the landscape just like there dictator President is doing to the rest of this country. The next step for these radicals is to watch the hard working people of the Central Valley fight among themselves to survive as they go dry. These fascist leftist want this to happen, they want these people to fight among themselves to distract the attention from them who have all of the water. That is how fascist gain power and keep power.. And don’t expect assistance from these hack of a president and racist first lady. Obama used to say he wanted to redistribute the wealth in America, fundamentally change America, take from the rich to give more to the middle class and the poor. To balance the scale so to speak. If that was really his intentions he would start by taking water from the full to capacity reservoirs in the bay area and LA area and redistribute the water evenly within the state. But he doesn’t because in those metropolises is where the wealthy communist leftist live, the ones who have all the water, the ones who keep them in office. The rest of the country better wake up before the 2016 presidential election because what is happening in California right now will surely spread and occur in the rest the country. And I am not referring to water, I am referring to these democratic communist leftist who spread their communistic agenda with more vengeance.

  13. Carol Schriner

    I would expect the cases of pulmonary coccidiomycosis aka Sonoran fever to go up as well. Your comment about chronic fought made the doctor in me do a differential diagnosis.

  14. Eric Ligtendag

    Well, the southern Californians will have to unite in some form and go for advice to the Israeli’s. Yes, it will take trouble and much money, but the alternative is far more “expensive” ……They have techniques in recycling the low quantities of water in their country… The South Africans have got the same water problem..they should do it too…
    Or else… the US have got the MIT…dont they have the technology to help?

  15. Joel Achramowicz

    Dear Mr. Hanson:

    Please reference an OpEd in the Investor Business Daily published in today’s edition entitled, “Mexican Flag-Waving Illegal Gets Cushy Ride By Taxpayers”. Along with your piece, they outline how bleak our situation is here in Mexifornia. I don’t even recognize my country anymore; in fact, I neither understand what it stands for today nor where it’s going.

    What a sad day for this state and the country, too. Why does it take utter chaos to snap people back to reality? Is that what Americans want? Evidently!

    By the way, I really enjoyed “Carnage and Culture”. I’ve read sections of it many times. An excellent work.


  16. I almost hope the drought continues, just so that real water shortages finally effect the pampered liberals of San Francisco and Los Angeles. Farmers endured drought for 4 years, nothing. Pampered liberals have a month of water restrictions, listen for the screams…..

  17. Thank you for saying what every half educated person from the Central Valley knows and wishes every smug urbanite would learn.

    From Exeter on the East Side

  18. There is a reason Mexico handed over Land to include Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California after the Texas Revolution and Mexican America War. To them at that time the land was useless, uninhabitable by man, for many centuries, that today, no amount of political B.S. or rhetoric can change. We hear people say” i HOPE it doesn’t come to that.” I say, living in the Mojave desert, during the summer” I HOPE it isn’t hot tomorrow.”

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  20. Leslie Jackson

    Well said. I wholly agree with everything in the article. However, the real problem (other than rain) is that this is exactly what “they” want. “They” want to end farming in this valley and import food from other countries in the new One World Government. Strong minded, independent citizenry living in thriving farming communities is the worst possible threat to “their” plan. A proud people with the ability to defend their homes and drive open roads in pick-up trucks is a very scary scenario in “their” minds.

    I use the quotation marks to confirm that I don’t know who “they” are specifically, but I know that “they” are powerfully aligned. The environmentalists, political elite, leftist wackos… what ever.

  21. “” El nino gains strength as pacific warms just like it’s1997. “” From bloomberg. Just singing in the rain…..

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  25. This is the first bit of logic I have seen. Further, if the politicians do not take heed of Mr Hansen’s wisdom, we will see farm workers moving to places where they can work & live, their rental houses will go vacant leaving landlords without tenants resulting in a glut of run down houses nobody wants reducing property tax revenue & ultimately leading to the smaller mom & pop stores closing, less police & firemen, more crime & a collapse of an agricultural based economy. California will return to its roots- dust bowl status.

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  29. Curious about the state of California’s drinking water levels I Googled ‘California water level map’ and immediately the links showed up to show me how far the sea was going to rise from global warming in California. I guess they won’t really need to worry about that in a few years.

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  32. Ukraine is developing a “drowning not waving” problem. It is struggling to say clearly how badly the war is going.
    Giving a candid public assessment of how poorly a conflict is going can be an unwise move as it can result in morale and support draining. After Obama boosted troops in Afghanistan, public support declined over the years, in part because of a lack of realism about how the war was going.
    Ukraine’s acutely bad presentation of its troubles is mostly due to the myopia of its allies.

    The lack of understanding in parts of US Congress is breathtaking. A congressman this week suggested Ukraine should name a finite price tag and a specific, simple goal. It’s staggering after two American wars of choice in two decades, costing trillions of dollars, that congressional memories are so short, and comprehension so limited.

    Instead, Kyiv consistently points to past successes and future goals. They have reclaimed about half the territory Russia took last year; they have damaged its Black Sea presence strategically. They have a plan for 2024, Zelensky said, but it is secret.

    Yet in truth, the most useful headline for Kyiv should be how unutterably bleak the frontlines are for them now. In nearly every direction, the news is grim. Russian forces are hiving off parts of the eastern city of Avdiivka, yet another town Moscow seems content to throw thousands of lives at despite its minimal importance. Along the Zaporizhzhia frontline, where the counteroffensive was focused but ultimately slow and unrewarding, Russian units have come back with renewed vigor and the defense is costly for Ukraine. Ukraine has made a plucky (or foolhardy) dash across the Dnipro River, with some small progress into Russian lines. The casualties have been immense, their supply lines are problematic, and their prospects dim.

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