We talk all too much, in the States, about drugs, and all too little about water. Water is a disregarded topic. There is no water section in the NYT – even the suggestion seems absurd.
But water is everything. I learned this lesson, if not from my own thirsts and growing pains, then from reading Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner’s great book, which gave me an intellectual jolt that I can still, crawling inside the old brainspace, feel. So I’m always on the lookout, which is why I was so pleased to read this horrifying account of our short term fiddling with long term disaster by Mark Arax, A Kingdom of Dust.
For optimal reading, you must have two experiences in mind. One is driving on the highway in California that skirts, at least, the farming district of Kern County, and feeling the eeriness of industrial farming on that scale. The other is Joan Didion’s paen to the California water system, Holy Water. That was written as the final touches were being put in place on the greatest feat of water engineering ever, which was the political legacy of Edmund Brown (Jerry Brown’s father):
“Some of us who live in arid parts of the world think about water with a reverence others might find excessive. The water I will draw tomorrow from my tap in Malibu is today crossing the Mojave Desert from the Colorado River, and I like to think about exactly where that water is. The water I will drink tonight in a restaurant in Hollywood is by now well down the Los Angeles Aqueduct from the Owens River, and I also think about exactly where that water is: I particularly like to imagine it as it cascades down the 45-degree stone steps that aerate Owens water after its airless passage through the mountain pipes and siphons.”
Holy Water was written while Joan Didion was still, pretty much, a John Wayne conservative; however, it bears the seed of her later, radically off the story politics.
Compare Didion to Arax:
“I pity the outsider trying to make sense of it. My grandfather, a survivor of the Armenian genocide, traveled 7,000 miles by ship and train in 1920 to find out if his uncle’s exhortation — “The grapes here are the size of jade eggs” — was true. My father, born in a vineyard outside Fresno, was a raisin grower before he became a bar owner. I grew up in the suburbs where our playgrounds were named after the pioneers of fruit and canals of irrigation shot through our neighborhoods to the farms we did not know. For half my life, I never stopped to wonder: How much was magic? How much was plunder?”The analysis of the real political economy should probably start with those two questions: how much was magic? How much was plunder?"
Arax centers his piece on one person, a person I had never heard of, and probably you, too. But an interesting guy. Named Stewart Resnick. How interesting? Well, here’s a fun fact to know and tell. Every year, the whole city of Los Angeles consumes 587,000 acre feet of water per year. And Stewart Resnick consumes 400,000 acre feet of water per year – just in California. That’s right, one farmer consumes water on the scale of a metropolis of 5 million people.
Resnick owns 180,000 acres of California desert – or former desert – much of it in Kern county. You’ve tasted his produce. He’s the pistachio guy. He’s the orange guy. He’s the almond guy. If you haven’t tasted his raisons, or almonds, directly, you’ve tasted them in pastries and sweets. And you’ve especially tasted them if you are into “health” food, if you are into “all natural” things like almond milk shakes and the like. You have bought into the mining of water at a rate unheard of in the Holocene era. One reads occasionally that the drug warriors missed a trick by not emphasizing the unfair labor conditions and ecological disasters spawned by the cocaine trade. But these same writers definitely skip the unfair labor conditions and ecological disasters spawned by, say, the Almond Milk Smoothie.
Obviously, Arax has been waiting all his life to write this piece. It has the magical air of a once in a lifetime reportage. I love this kind of thing, even though it makes me pessimistic that humanity is going to survive.