Former LA Times Journalist Mark Arax puts California’s water use through an Upton Sinclair or Stienbeck lens

"The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California," by Mark Arax.

Growing up in California this reporter always had the sense of abundance in one form or another. The most of that was always expressed in food, especially produce. Author/journalist Mark Arax’s book “The Dreamt Land” captures much of what I and perhaps many native Californians take as granted and then some.

The San Francisco Chronicle in its review noted that Arax’ 576-page book published by Alfred A. Knopf has “a broader focus.” A native of Fresno, CA – which is a major agricultural hub in its own right, The Chronicle praises Arax in his ability to tell the story better than most; and that ‘The Dreamt Land’ “reads like a lost Upton Sinclair novel.”

I would agree most whole-heartedly. Sweeping as it may seem, ‘The Dreamt Land’ captures that unusual magic or maybe mystical element of the essence of California. For me and I hope for many, California has that rare something where people’s dreams and hopes get manifested, even if only for a moment, and touches the heart, the soul.

Part of the dilemma of California is that everyone wants to live here, even if temporarily. It’s more than a destination for people, it has become an icon of sorts in the consciousness of many. And, why God (however such a concept of a creator is revealed to people) didn’t make another California on the opposite side of the world to balance out the flows of population, I don’t know!

Yet, one thing is certain as the former Los Angeles Times reporter Arax points out eloquently, California can not continue being the wonderful, marvelous place of opportunity it is without an ample supply of water.

The issue of water is nothing new to any paradise, whether man-made or as some like to uphold, “God-given.” As the state’s population, the nation’s population and most definitely the entire planet’s human population continues to grow, the need for safe, clean and consumable water is paramount.

This is especially so for all farmers and big agricultural industries like grape growers, produce and nut farmers. Just to name a few. While Arax bravely looks under the covers of California’s seemingly unending beauty and prosperity, he firmly questions the sustainability of extensive agriculture when water in the “Golden State” is not always abundant.

In fact, Arax mentions several instances where water is stolen from others so that big agriculture can feed the insatiable appetite for things like nuts. This of course, is a wake up call (perhaps one of many that is ongoing) to help readers understand the actual situation California is in.

With global warming in the spotlight and an ever-increasing need for better management of not only water but also all things that human kind uses, Arax’s book is a testimony.

It is a testimony to what California was and what it has become. Arax’s book also at times feels both poetic and prophetic. It has a cadence much like that of John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.”

Arax doesn’t give any “answers” to California’s water issues in his book, he simply places California through a lens, like any accomplished writer/reporter does.

While I am aware of some of the water issues California faces, I much rather let those more versed in water issues speak. I reached out to Spreck Rosekrans of the Restore Hetch Hetchy project. Here is what he had to say.

“Everybody’s talking about ‘The Dreamt Land,’ and for good reason, he said. Mark Arax brings the Central Valley to life, and brilliantly contrasts its unprecedented agricultural bounty with its human and environmental costs – with an eye to its highly uncertain future.

Travelers who venture a few miles away from Interstate 5 are easily gobs-smacked by the sheer volume of food production. The acreage dedicated to almonds, pistachios and pomegranates brings in the big bucks these days, if the soil is right and the water reliably available. But the Central Valley also leads the nation in melons, grapes, tomatoes and so many other crops. If Silicon Valley and Hollywood are sexier than farming, it is only because we Californians are so damn well-fed.”

Rosekrans goes on to say…”Arax explains that the Central Valley, like our urban centers, is transformed land. Riparian woodlands are now farmland. Wetlands are dewatered and streams dammed as fish and wildlife populations struggle to survive. The extraction of surface water has not been sufficient to supply our cities and farms, so we’ve sucked water from wells until the ground beneath us resembles a giant dry sponge, which, in many places, has collapsed.”

In this reporter’s work over the years, I have been made aware of the need for better responsibility of California’s water resources. Interviews with water experts and conservationist programs like the Tuolumne River Trust, have made me more aware of the critical aspects to water use.

While I question some of the ideas that Restore Hetch Hetchy has proposed, like dismantling O’Shaughnessy Dam in order to restore more of Yosemite, I do understand the need to look at water differently than in the past.

In my conversations with Peter Drekmeier, who is a policy director at Tuolumne River Trust, he has noted the importance of recognizing that water is not all about humans. Some of it must be left for the animals and nature itself.

While many do not agree entirely with the Restore Hetch Hetchy Project, one thing the organization does aim to discern is how wise is it to keep building reservoirs and dams?

“The future will be different –  groundwater gets more expensive as we drill yet deeper, said Rosekrans. New State law to limit extraction will have painful near-term effects, but guarantee California will continue to be a breadbasket into the 22nd century and successive generations will be able to stay on the land.”

“The opportunity for balancing competing demands for water is theoretically within grasp, says Rosekrans. But those doing the competing are disinclined to give in as so much of the precious liquid is at stake.” Admiring Arax’s work and dedication to the subject of water use in California, Rosekrans said.

“‘The Dreamt Land’ is a compelling read for anyone who wants to understand California’s landscapes, or who cares about food, water or people.” ‘The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California’ is available in print and ebook format. It is also available and a delight to hear in audio-book format. For more information about the book and author-journalist Mark Arax, visit his web site.