After Water by Susie Cagle, Longreads
J Thoendell stashed this in California
For the last year, the unincorporated and impoverished community of East Porterville has experienced some of the worst effects of this drought through a combination of exceptional factors that have coalesced to stamp out a self-sufficient subsistence that has characterized Central Valley life for many people over the last 150 years.
With no municipal water system, families rely on private wells and the groundwater those wells tap. So, too, do the farmers planting thirsty and thirstier non-native crops nearby— farmers who can drill ten times as deep as their residential neighbors for the water those plants need. Months go by without rain; the groundwater they suck up isn’t replaced. No one really knows how many of the shallow home wells have gone dry here: They thought it was 100 until they counted 500, 600, 800… that now pump only sand. In a community that prides itself on self-reliance, how do you live off the land when the land turns on you?
Okay, you got me. I'm praying for rain!
This is life after water. And no one knows how long it might last.
After water, there are a thousand new considerations: Is it better to cook with expensive, precious bottled water or eat fast food every night? Does this soap have animal fat in it that will stick to your skin and be harder to scrub off? Whose truck can you borrow to pick up the water you need from the fire station to bathe your babies? How dirty does it have to be for you not to drink it on a 110 degree day? How long can you live like this?
After water, what is the cost of this independence? What is the role of government and other institutions? Who bears the load of a community on the brink? How does a town stay a town?
The drought has had a cascading effect across this complex supply chain. Much of California’s fresh water is naturally stored in the Sierra snowpack, which is now at its lowest level ever recorded. The loss of natural resources places more pressure on the engineering meant to shuttle water around the state—not to where it is most needed or best used, but where it has been most assuredly promised.
California has always been plagued.
The floods and fires presented as disasters are in truth a natural lifecycle for a binge-and-purge ecosystem that was in no way formed with human life in mind. Centuries of settlers have attempted to tame this extreme landscape with increasingly ambitious feats of engineering: draining lakes until they were craters, moving rivers of water until all the fish died, drilling out the aquifers until the land sank.
This has in some ways made us very rich. California’s economy is the largest of all the U.S. states. When the plains turned to dust nearly 100 years ago, thousands migrated here, including my family, and helped to establish the Central Valley as the nation’s preeminent agricultural center. Today the region produces a full third of the produce we eat.
But now the land is purging. A spectacular drought has drawn the entire Southwest dry. Where water has long been a rival good yet inexplicably taken for granted, more than 90 percent of California is in a severe drought, with the situation in Porterville and much of the surrounding valley deemed exceptional. The state’s natural dryness has been exacerbated by a creeping global climate change and a cascade of questionable human decisions, and it has escalated with shocking speed.
Last September, Governor Jerry Brown declared the drought not just an emergency, but a disaster, releasing millions in funding for immediate aid but none for the long-term infrastructure necessary to maintain an extremely thirsty modern society.
The crisis is constant. California has always been plagued.
We disregard the past at our own peril.
We forget the great regional destruction of the Dust Bowl, a destruction that came about not simply at nature’s behest but in no small part by way of shortsighted farming practices. We forget Owens Lake, drained dry to feed a young and hungry Los Angeles, now the country’s greatest source of dust pollution. We forget what this place was like before we got here, and we forget the hundreds and thousands of miles of infrastructure we built to carry the water we needed to make it California, this California, the one with which we have been so passionate and so careless.
If there were any time for the myth of California to crumble, now must be it.
We could double down on the self-righteousness that delivered us here by reviving old plans to import water from Northern California, from Alaska, from Canada, despite the potential for further environmental harm. We could attempt other grand feats of engineering, desalination plants, water pipelines. We could rip out all those crops, two valleys worth of crops, billions of dollars worth of crops, and start over in another part of the country. We could pray for rain, or to be delivered from our own folly. Or we could reconsider our priorities.
I've always been amused by Santayana's quote,
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
Ok, this sounds like a shortcut to blissful immortality by simply forgetting (if I just forget the good stuff in the past, am I condemned to repeat that?) and then living life like shampoo instructions. There are tons of these Turrets-like utterances throughout history that just seem a little short, "Plucking a single gray hair will grow back two" ... oh yeah? Sounds like a great workaround tactic for balding.
Maybe these sayings lost their complementary predicates along the way, such as,
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it ... but those who can remember enough of the past are about to become part of it."
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to reread it.