I’ve just finished local author Mark Arax’ latest tome, The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California. It’s a tremendous achievement–the writing ,research and living of it–certainly not my having read it. A must-read for any understanding of the Golden State, Arax expertly chronicles our many gold-type rushes–particularly that of water.
We’re all Don Quixote, it turns out, tilting at windmills–and California is our steed.
First, there was a race the Spanish mounted to colonize the coast and “civilize” the natives before any other European power could lay a claim. Then came the gold rush. Next, and in succession, were booms of wheat, cattle, cotton, citrus and nuts.
Water, of course, has ever been central to all these endeavors. In fact, it was Father Junipero Serra who oversaw the construction of the first aqueduct in California, a seven-mile snake of water emptying onto the mission grounds at what is now Ventura.
Naturally enough, it was the Indians local to Mission San Buenaventura who laid the stone and mortar down from the hills to the north of that enclave. ‘Twas ever thus.
Throughout the state’s history there has been–and continues to be–a rush for water. When panning and sluicing could not slake their lust for gold quickly enough, miners turned to hydraulic cannons, aiming immense nozzles at whole hillsides and washing them into increasingly silted streams. The City of Los Angeles stole the Owens River from its valley, connecting 137 miles of pipe northwards to its source in the mountains. Sound familiar? But San Francisco, too, claimed the Hetch Hetchy Valley, collecting its water there as a reservoir and piping it west to town. The Sacramento River was siphoned, the San Joaquin assassinated , and dams went up while wells went, ever deeper, down.
A depletion of the aquifer that caused the very ground to sink.
From geopolitics to gold mining to agriculture, as a construct California’s fulcrum has always been the manipulation of water. That’s the norm for California. Because we can’t count on Mother Nature. She’s capricious, and the state irregularly alternates between periods dry and wet. Sometimes for years on end. So we build aqueducts, dam, divert and starve rivers–even create artificial ones, some of which run uphill–and mine for water forgetting, during the drought, that the wet is on its way.
All of this is before climate change.
And now we’re headed into a new era, perhaps the last rush, in physical terms, of extraction: Housing.
We had a first taste of this roughly a hundred years ago when citrus in the San Fernando Valley, made possible by the rape of the Owens River, gave over to housing and fled across the mountains to the eastern San Joaquin Valley.
For nearly 40 years we’ve been in an increasing housing crisis–in terms of both availability and affordability. Despite increased building, the best estimates place us at a deficit of three to four million housing units, with an emphasis on producing 85,000 units per year to match expected population growth. And because scarcity only drives rents and purchase prices higher, for them to stabilize, if not decline, California would have to quadruple its current rate of production for the next seven years.
It seems that the only solution to the housing crisis is to build more housing. And quickly.
A housing rush!
Why am I worried? Because each rush California has experienced has been fevered and unreasonable.
I grew up, in the sixties and seventies, in the small East Bay town of Moraga. It’s nestled in a valley, mostly, but by the time I left houses were creeping up our pristine hillsides. Having explored this wildlife as a kid, of course I considered it a desecration. I still do.
I’m trying to picture, writ large, what this looks like on a state level. What it looks like not only in suburbia, where I was raised, but in urban and rural areas as well. Everywhere, I envision high-density housing and sprawl. High-density, particularly in urban areas, and sprawl anywhere there’s open land.
As Cervantes wrote it:
“Destiny guides our fortunes more favorably than we could have expected. Look there, Sancho Panza, my friend, and see those thirty or so wild giants, with whom I intend to do battle and kill each and all of them, so with their stolen booty we can begin to enrich ourselves. This is noble, righteous warfare, for it is wonderfully useful to God to have such an evil race wiped from the face of the earth.”
“What giants?” asked Sancho Panza.
“The ones you can see over there,” answered his master, “with the huge arms, some of which are very nearly two leagues long.”
“Now look, your grace,” said Sancho, “what you see over there aren’t giants, but windmills, and what seems to be arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind and turn the millstone.”
“Obviously,” replied Don Quixote, “you don’t know much about adventures.”
I think we’re in for another adventure.