California’s Two Droughts

Roundup: Historians' Take
tags: California, droughts



Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His latest book is The Savior Generals, published this spring by Bloomsbury Books.

Despite recent sporadic rain, California is still in the worst extended drought in its brief recorded history. If more storms do not arrive, the old saying that California could withstand two droughts — but never three — will be tested for the first time in memory.

There is little snow in the state’s towering Sierra Nevada mountains, the source of much of the surface water that supplies the state’s populated center and south. The vast Central Valley aquifer is being tapped as never before, as farms and municipalities deepen wells and boost pump size. Too many straws are now competing to suck out the last drops at the bottom of the collective glass. 

The vast 4-million-acre farming belt along the west side of the Central Valley is slowly drying up. Unlike valley agriculture to the east, which still has a viable aquifer, these huge farms depend entirely on surface water deliveries from the distant and usually wet northern part of the state. So if the drought continues, billions of dollars of Westside orchards and vineyards will die, row cropland will lay fallow, and farm-supported small towns will likewise dry up.

There is a terrible irony to all this. Never have California farm prices been higher, given huge Pacific export demand. Never have California farmers been more savvy in saving water to produce record harvests of nutritious, clean, and safe food. And never has farming been so central to a state suffering from the aftershocks of a housing collapse, chronic high unemployment, overregulation, and the nation’s highest sales, income, and gas taxes....




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