The Underbelly Of The California Drought

by Victor Davis Hanson // Eureka

Almaden Reservoir in San Jose, Calif. (Justin Sullivan/Getty)
Almaden Reservoir in San Jose, Calif. (Justin Sullivan/Getty)

It is September in California, year four of a scorching drought. Forest fires are blackening the arid state, from Napa Valley to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Fly over the High Sierra and about every tenth evergreen below appears dead. Even the high mountain lakes and reservoirs are about empty – and equally void of vacationers who have few places to boat, fish, and ski, and are unsure where the next forest fire will break out and force evacuations on often one-lane winding mountain roads.

Four years of warnings of the consequences of government culpability – from cancelling water projects to releasing millions of acre-feet of precious stored reservoir water in utopian efforts to restore 19th-century salmon runs in the San Joaquin River or to rebound a bait fish population in the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta – are no longer written off as shrill.

Only meteorologists offer hope. They reassure that the cause of the drought was never global warming, as the president and governor in demagogic fashion insisted. Rather, periodic fluctuations in oceanic temperatures, especially warming and cooling of the equatorial Pacific Ocean known as El Niño, determine whether northern winter storms skirt or hit California. Preliminary data now suggest that perhaps El Niño is finally back to change storm trajectories and that next year might see the end of the four-year absence of snow and rain.

In the meantime, few talk about the underbelly of the drought. There is a well-drilling craze from one end of the 400-mile long Central Valley to other. Prices-per-foot of well and casing have tripled and quadrupled.  Irony abounds. Valley farmers were the first to feel the drought when their contracted surface water was cut off years ago. But many of them will also be the last to survive, given the state’saquifer is only deep in the state’s center and can be tapped for years more – if one has the money and clout to find a well rig to drill ever deeper than one’s neighbor.

There is little, if any clean hydroelectric power being generated, at precisely the time farmers are using their power-gulping pumps to keep their farms alive until canals and ditches flow again. Many of us have paid steep taxes for four years to local irrigation districts, but have not received a drop of water. Instead, the farm’s electric pumps go on in April and stay on until October. The aquifer plunges a foot or two per week. Few remember how holistic was the system of our grandfathers in which surface irrigation recharged the aquifer relegating pumping to back-up insurance rarely drawn upon.

Farmers survive the soaring electricity costs and the huge capital investments of new pumps and wells only through record commodity prices – nuts and fresh fruits especially – that will likely continue to climb as the drought cuts commodity production and the Asian consumer market grows. Another oddity: there is a land boom too, at least along a ten-mile radius of the 99 Freeway in the center of the state. There, an acre of farmland, with the water table still only 100 feet below, can go for between $30,000 and $40,000 per acre. Prices have climbed $10,000 an acre in just the last year.

Investors rightly see the narrow agricultural corridor as the last place in the populated central and southern part of the state that will go dry. Farms with a good aquifer thus represent a reasonable gamble that they will manage to produce crops that will bring in more cash than it will cost to irrigate them.

Meanwhile, farmers of the 3-million acre West Side of the Central Valley, nearer the I-5 interstate, have been mostly cut off from the California Water Project and Central Valley Project irrigation water from Northern California. Unfortunately, the aquifer is of little help on the West Side. Water is found only from 600 to 1,500 feet below the surface, and is usually of poor quality. Many larger conglomerates are hedging bets by leasing or buying eastern valley land, which in turn only adds to the anomaly of soaring land prices even as agriculture is declared doomed.

The two great population centers of the state – the Los Angeles Basin and the San Francisco Bay Area – have so far not been greatly affected by the drought given both areas have the best claims on the vast transfers of water from Northern California and the Sierra. Another of the ironies of the four-year crisis has been the resistance of these urban interests to building new reservoirs, raising dams, building the peripheral canal, and keeping reservoirs full – despite their complete reliance on such fossilized water infrastructure.

Advocacy for massive releases of stored water for fish restoration and river enhancement were pet projects of Bay Area progressives. Cynics would attribute such green politics to the fact that millions of urbanites could cut off the contracted water of distant others only because their own supplies were sacrosanct.

But that surety will disappear in 2016 should El Niño not reappear, the drought continues, and the last of California municipality-contracted water disappears. The back-up aquifers in these vast urban centers are inadequate to replace northern and Sierra transfers. When Hollywood and Google go dry, we may, too late, hear of the need to finish California’s water projects that were largely cancelled when the state’s population was 20, not the present-day 40, million people.

The solutions for the drought are simple: complete the envisioned reservoirs and dams of the California Water Project; cease releasing water from reservoirs for theoretic fish restoration; and lift government regulations on how water is bought and sold.

In the meantime, we pray for the long awaited Christmas-time return of El Niño – a divine gift of warmer ocean temperatures.


Typically 30% of the state’s water supply, California’s 450 groundwater aquifers store about 425,000 acre-feet of cost-effective and usable water.  California’s largest aquifer lies under the Central Valley, which collects water runoff from the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. During drought years, the aquifer can provide over 60% of the state’s water – even more for farmers. This depletes the supply, however, which can only be replenished via gradual Sierra Nevada runoff or surface water transfers for irrigation, which then seeps down into the aquifer to recharge it.

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20 thoughts on “The Underbelly Of The California Drought”

  1. I’m not convinced one way or the other about the extent of man-made global warming, but I find the luddite, anti-American habit of blaming everything on MMGW to be tiresome. They blame the drought on it and when the rains start they will blame that on global warming too.

  2. In November, California voters approved by a 2:1 margin, Proposition 1 – the 2014 California Water Bond. The largest single portion of bond money was the $2.7 billion earmarked for the California Water Commission to allocate for water storage projects such as dams and reservoirs. It specifies money for so-called water storage projects like dams, reservoirs and groundwater will be under the control of the California Water Commission. The governor appointed 9 people to this commission. Now we sit and wait…

  3. sir:

    you live in a state of idiocy. i pity anyone stupid enough to be trapped in california. but, please, please, please, please stay there. i wish only that the rest of us could quarantine you and your fellows.

    idiots all. you think that you can rule nature by edict, and rule people by fiat, and that your privilege is everlasting.

    you despise the ancient romans and greeks, and refuse to acknowledge piety, discipline, rectitude and virtue as they relate to civics. you marvel at your failures utterly without comprehension. you educate your children by the use of stupid and vapid utterance, w/ no reference to conclusion and consequence.

    you deserve your ruinous state, and squander the hard work of your fore bearers.

    maybe there is a hidden genius here? perhaps you wish to make california such a shit hole that mexico (& atzlan) will no longer covet you? is that it?

    the conquest of the snail darter and the environmentalists lays waste to you. as bugs bunny noted, it is to laugh, it is to cry.

    john jay
    milton freewater, oregon (not near enough far away from you)

    1. You are certainly not insulated from the hordes in cal. 5 gal of gas and we are your neighbor, over bidding on your real estate. I am with you in concept, but Or is not without its problems.

  4. p.s. i make no apologies for the coarseness & vulgarity of my language. it is the only way i know how to express (in so few short words) the utter contempt i have for california and the way it is governed, by leftists and zany extremists of every stripe (and perversion.)

    it is a hell hole. and only swear words communicate that efficiently. what next for california? a pedophile for governor? a legislature ruled by the men boy love caucus? soon, i fear. the second coming, indeed.

    1. Anthony Mxyzptlk

      California’s fate was sealed when Governor Schwarzeneggar could not stand up to the Teacher’s Union the way President Reagan stood up to the Air Controller’s Union. Governor Schwarzeneggar just couldn’t bear being portrayed as an inhuman monster who didn’t care about the kids.

      He caved, and after that he lost his pizzazz. Every goofy left-wing cause that came down the pike was OK with him.

      What California needs now is a Scott Walker in the Governor’s Office and a right wing Jesse Unruh in the State Legislature.

  5. Thanks,, VDH for an excellent article.

    Californians who voted to elect and re-elect President Obama snd Governor Moonbeam will never admit it, but Pogo was talking about them when he proclaimed: “We have met the enemy. He is US.”

    The nation’s gotten along just fine without the Passenger Pigeon. California can get along without the Delta Smelt. The Salmon are not going to come back to Capistrano, so to speak.

    Everybody and everything will be for the better when the Utopian Enviro-Nazis finally lose their clout.

  6. I’m surprised that the cost to wildlife and their habitat hasn’t been mentioned. Take a look at relevant studies and add it to the disaster ignorant people are causing with their religion of “Man is Bad” madness.
    If the Greens and other soft-headed Leftists really understood the cosmic scale of damage their mindless leaders inflict on this corner of the planet, they might be shocked enough to question their beliefs.

  7. On July 15 th I flew a light plane from Hayward to Bennet field in Redding. I stayed low for this leg, no higher than 3,000 ft. Well over 10% of the agricultural land was fallow. Definetly less than 25%. My estimate is about 15%.

    It was a pleasant, if quite hot, walk to the Sun Dial bridge and the walk along the bank of the Sacramento river. It was quite noticeable how high the river was, if water was let out of Shasta resevoir any faster it would have caused erosion of the banks.

    Where is all that water going ? Much of if is being pissed out into the blue pacific.

    This isn’t the left coast, it’s the land of lunatics.

    1. Recently, California state officials have begun counting environmental uses for water, too:
      So, with those uses, the total water budget has grown. The breakdown now:
      •Wild and scenic rivers protected under federal law get 31 percent.
      •In other rivers, we keep water flowing at a certain rate for recreation, environmental reasons or both. Maintaining such “instream flows” takes around 9 percent.
      •Keeping seawater out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta — uses about 7 percent.
      •Managed wetlands get 2 percent.
      •Cities and towns get 10 percent.
      •What that means is that agricultural irrigation accounts for around 41 percent of the state’s water pie.
      The Public Policy Institute of California helpfully short hands that to: 50 percent environmental, 40 percent agricultural, 10 percent urban.

  8. Victor:

    You have long been a prophet crying unheeded in the drought.

    The SF and LA elites are astoundingly arrogant and ignorant. They now lament the use of water for any agricultural purposes. And continue to worship at the altar of Gaia, flaunting their hatred of the farmers.

    As John Derbyshire would say, California is doomed.

  9. Phillip Christman

    CA’s “moon-beam” democrat governor is typical of the nation’s all wise and caring democrat environmental elite that know better what to do to prevent terrible situations.

    Unfortunately, that overweening hubris has carried over to the executive branch in Washington DC and to the State Department in that they know better how to handle world issues. Result: Russian/Iranian hegemony in the Middle East, European migrant disaster, ISIS, etc.

    And they remain in control until January 20, 2017! Possibly our brilliant electorate may even give us a Clinton or Obama “third term”! SIGH!!!!

  10. When there is not enough water, it won’t matter what the arguments are of who owns what. Farmers also cannot feel entitled to twelve feet of water at prices cheap enough to produce a profit, in order to quadruple crop their land. Mostly unmentioned is the commensurate decline in water quality. Remediating this needs technology. At present, there is only ONE widely used technology, reverse osmosis (RO) for remediating tds, and, this is a poor choice where high water recovery is important, or where nitrate is present, which is always. Therefore, whose job is it to research and pilot new technologies? There seems to be zero government support. The Bureau of Reclamation recently had a $1.5 MM RFP out, with strings, 50% matching funds, and, guess what, they funded mroe research in RO, an inadequate technology as old as the alphabet. It boils down to where rich people, including farmers, want to invest their money. Even if people grew up ploughing up one row and down the next all day, or with jobs working for software companies, we all have to recover the spirit of innovation that are forebears had.

  11. Government! As Reagan said, “Government is the problem.” If you think the CA government is causing problems, dwell on what obama (Chamberlain) has wrought: A nuclear Iran in partnership with an ever threatening hitler, I mean putin.

  12. Pingback: The Mysterious Results of Liberal Policies. | American Elephants

  13. “maybe there is a hidden genius here? perhaps you wish to make california such a shit hole that mexico (& atzlan) will no longer covet you? is that it?”

    NO BODY will covet the place when there is NO water. 40 million now and climbing. The land was mostly desert until the arrival of whitey and the building of those aqueduct projects. NO water and then no people. Even a Mexican must have water to drink.

  14. I used to dismiss contrails as simply a natural occurrence. Recently I started researching “geo-engineering” and Obama’s “rainmaker” moniker. Do you see any basis for the theory that these nano bungee cords are causing vast areas of pollution?

  15. Simple solution to the water shortage for CA. Mandate Starbuck’s to only market espresso style drinks; the water savings will be significant.

  16. I agree with most of this but do have a couple of comments:

    1. Your solutions to the drought are not solutions. They are, at best, mitigations. Within current limits only nature can provide a solution. With less environmental control we could get water from NW Canada via the Rocky Mountain Trench but I’m not in favor of that idea, except in super-villain fantasies

    2. Yes, the aquifer recharges over time. However, in many areas of the valley there is also clay compression, which diminishes the storage capacity for future use, even after recharge. It is like a phone battery… diminishing storage over time and you can’t usually replace it!

  17. APRIL 08 2015 California’s Water Rationing: A Man-Made Disaster

    So, instead of conserving water to benefit taxpayers, California officials literally flushed 2.6 million acre-feet of fresh water into the ocean. California Governor Jerry Brown has announced he will issue an executive order that mandates statewide water rationing.

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