In the 1930s two crises hit the Great Plains at once – 50 years of overfarming marginal lands had destroyed the topsoil and created what we know as the Dust Bowl, and at least twenty years of economic pressure to overfarm (to pay debts and make up for collapsed prices) had created an untenable financial situation for the farmers. Either one was going to end in disaster – the land would give out or the overuse of credit would end in deflation and ruin. As it happened, the crises both occurred at exactly the same time, producing a social catastrophe from which several states have still not recovered.
California now faces the same problem. For 60 years we have based our economy on the production and consumption of sprawl. This worked well enough until the late 1970s, when those who had prospered the most from this model decided to stop reinvesting profits in the state and in society, and took their ball and went home. The next 30 years were dominated by even more sprawl, financed by massive amounts of debt and by eating the state’s seed corn by slashing the government programs that built prosperity in the first place.
This was always bound to end in disaster, and as we are well aware, that disaster – in the form of economic depression and government bankruptcy – is now here. But the massive sprawlconomy binge had another set of costs whose bill is now coming due – water.
California had an unusually wet 20th century, and we exploited that to the fullest. To have a society built on sprawl and consumption, we needed to siphon as much water as possible to give not just to the new housing developments, but to the sprawling farms. Sprawl is a farming phenomenon as well – wasting land and water resources on resource-intensive crops grown to enrich shareholders, instead of sensibly using land and water to grow crops for subsistence and food security. California was in a water bubble, just as the state was experiencing a financial bubble. We have been living well beyond our means.
Ultimately the water bubble was going to burst. And just as in the 1930s Great Plains, it is bursting at the same moment as the economic bubble. For the least year or so you could drive down the backroads of the Salinas Valley, Salad Bowl Of The World, and see shuttered warehouses and laid off packing workers.
Now that water is less available the agricultural recession is shifting into higher gear. The highest unemployment rates in California are in our agricultural counties – 22.6% in Imperial, 14.3% in Tulare, 13.7% here in Monterey County. (Note: those stats are for nonfarm jobs, and yet the correlation between ag and the rest of the county economy is obviously very strong.)
The water crisis is now about to come to the rest of California. Sitting here in Monterey, in summer-like weather in January, I am inclined to believe the claims that this is the worst drought ever in the state’s recorded history:
California teeters on the edge of the worst drought in the state’s history, officials said Thursday after reporting that the Sierra Nevada snowpack – the backbone of the state’s water supply – is only 61 percent of normal.
January usually douses California with about 20 percent of the state’s annual precipitation, but instead it delivered a string of dry, sunny days this year, almost certainly pushing the state into a third year of drought.
The drought exacerbates the problems caused by our overuse of water resources. To prevent a total environmental collapse in the Delta massive reductions of water flows will be required. And for those of us who live in counties that don’t get our water from the Delta – places like Sonoma, Marin, and Monterey – the situation is going to be worse. Water managers in those counties are planning to 50% cutbacks in urban water use, which is an amount that will dramatically change how we live. We could let every lawn die and stop hosing down every driveway and still not get anywhere close to 50% reductions.
The Monterey Peninsula has been under Stage 1 water rationing for ten years now. You rarely see water wasted here, and new development has been at a standstill (how many towns have vacant lots and abandoned homes within a mile of the beach as we do?). But a 50% cut will force dramatic changes in how we live, as it will around the state.
Those changes ARE coming. There is no way around the fact that the way California was organized in the 20th century – politically, economically, and especially in terms of our land use and water use – is over. Done. Gone.
The question for us now is will we try to actively transition California to a more sustainable future? Or will we do nothing and let the chips fall where they may? The first option at least allows us a chance of rebuilding widely shared prosperity by funding local food, sustainable farming, and urban density. The latter would produce widespread immiseration while allowing a small aristocratic elite to enjoy a semblance of the 20th century lifestyle.
The choice is up to us.