Water and Power in California

Some sleuths have a detective gene. One of them is my brother Adam, a PI for the past 40 years who tells me that everyone lies: cops, criminals, judges and lawyers. I think of Mark Arax as a natural born detective. His book, The Dreamt Land (Knopf), is a compelling report of his thorough investigations into the dark world of water and power. While it has been in print for several years, it’s still news, especially now that California is in the midst of a drought once again, and the cracks in the earth and in social institutions are wider than ever before.

This review meanders like a river, though it also hews to two main channels: one personal and the other social and political. As a young man growing up and coming of age under the hot California sun, Arax couldn’t help but be inquisitive, aim to separate truths from half-truths and outright lies and expose the guilty parties.

To separate the criminals from the worthy citizens and genuine  environmentalists, Arax has traveled all over the American West, and “West of the West,” to borrow a phrase from his second book, which is subtitled, “Dreamers, Believers, Builders and Killers in the Golden State.” The key word in that cluster is “killers,” though “dreamers” runs a close second.

You can’t be a Californian and not entertain big dreams, whether they’re about wealth or justice, power or water, blockbuster movies or illegal drugs, a subject Arax mostly avoids. Still, he has tangled with more than one big-time criminal during his career as an investigative journalist who has followed in the paths carved out by Ida B. Wells, Lincoln Steffens and Carey McWilliams.

Wells wrote about lynching, which she rightly called, “Our National Crime.” Steffens uncovered urban corruption in The Shame of the Cities and McWilliams busted wide open corporate California agriculture in Factories in the Field, published in the thick of the Depression and in the same year as Steinbeck’s classic, The Grapes of Wrath. Some have likened Arax to Joan Didion, who skewered California in many of the essays collected in The White Album. Indeed, she has inspired Arax.

Water, its uses and abuses, is as big a story as lynching, urban evil, the Dust Bowl and the Okies who came to California to escape poverty. Dust seems to have followed them, or so Arax suggests.

In his own books, he has unearthed more environmental crimes and criminals— including big time water thieves, known as “water buffaloes,” plus violators of basic human rights—than any other living reporter in the state that’s been called “Golden. Let’s not forget that if California is a “golden state,” it’s also a “noir” state as Dashiell Hammett showed in Red Harvest and The Dain Curse and Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep and The High Window. Not even during the boom times of the Gold Rush— which took place not long before California became a state—was the place golden, though many dreamed it was. Too much blood has stained the hills and valleys and too much water has been purloined and polluted to call the place “golden.”

When Arax writes about “The Golden State” it’s to demythologize it and its unending craving for what developers and ag giants call “a WaterFix.” If Arax is to be believed—there’s no good reason not to— there are no more yeoman, Jeffersonian farmers in the Great Central Valley which cranks out crops to feed most of the nation and in the process ravages the land, the people who work it and claims more water than it can actually use.

In his lyrical, monumental book, The Dreamt Land, Arax describes California as a landscape where water was “weaponized,” “mechanized” and “industrialized” early in its history, and certainly decades before he became a teenager in the 1970s. At the age of 15, his forty-year old Armenian father Ara—named after the Aras River which cuts through the land of his ancestors—was shot and killed in Fresno. That was in January 1972. Half-a-century later, it’s still the decisive event in his life, though he has been a husband, a father, a teacher and a writer who has won awards for his style of impassioned journalism in which the author himself is always emotionally and intellectually present and never a distant story teller.

Mark Arax took his memories of his dead father and his insatiable curiosity with him when he left home to attend college, first at nearby Fresno State and later at Columbia University in New York. Once he had his diplomas in hand he went to work as a reporter at The Los Angeles Times.

His beat was the Central Valley, which few people have wanted to be covered honestly and in depth. Too much money has been at stake to make it easy for reporters to tell its truths. Too much water has been spilled and too many lives, most of them belonging to Latinos, have been lost to locate the source of the problems. For most of his adult life, Arax has been searching for clues about his father’s murder, and at the same time about the theft of millions and millions of gallons of water (usually measured in acre feet) which has led to billions of dollars in bank accounts attached to men like Stewart Resnick and his lovely wife, Lynda.

According to Arax, the Resnicks “control more land and water—130 billion gallons a year—than any other man or woman in California.” It hasn’t been easy to track down his father’s killers. Nor has it been easy to follow the hidden and obscure paths that water takes on the land the Resnicks own which spreads across five counties. On page 335, there’s a telling photo with the caption, “Resnick’s secret pipeline,” and the information that he’s been buying tens of thousands of acre-feet “in a series of hidden deals.”

The “transactions aren’t easy to trace,” Arax writes. “Public water auctions are rare; buyers and sellers confer behind closed doors and stay mum about deals.” He adds that “schemes” are “byzantine and harmful to the environment.” Page after page in The Dreamt Land—the title suggests a kind of figment of the human imagination Arax has water on his mind. He also has his father on his mind.

In fact, he interrupts the narrative of his water story to write about the family tragedy that took place “on a fog-drip night…[when] two men wearing gloves walked into my father’s  empty bar and shot him to death.” Arax adds, “They dumped their stolen car and a thirty-eight-caliber revolver into the canal’s black water and got away with murder for the next thirty-two years.” Every place Mark Arax looks he sees water. The murder was eventually solved, but that wasn’t until the twenty-first century.

It wasn’t his writing about his father or corporate ag in the Central Valley that upended his career as a journalist, but rather a story he filed about the Armenian Genocide, which took place in 1915-1916 when a million Armenians were slaughtered. In The Dreamt Land, Arax writes about an uncle of his who apparently strangled two Turkish men to death and fled to California under an assumed name. “That story – what parts were true, what parts were myth?— was passed down to me as a family’s act of vengeance,” he writes. Like all good reporters, he takes nothing for granted, asks pertinent questions and doesn’t fake news or information.

What exactly happened to Arax at the LA Times after he filed his story about the Armenian Genocide isn’t clear, though his editors declined to run it. In fact, it’s a bit of a mystery. Still, we know that Arax left the paper, struck out on his own and became a living legend in California journalism and literature.

Yes, his work qualifies as literature. He is the author of three bodacious books, often referred to as the “Arax trilogy”: In My Father’s NameThe Dreamt Land and West of the West. With the Drucker Institutes’ Rick Wartzman, he also wrote The King of California, which tells the story of “the building of a secret American empire in the middle of California” to borrow the words of one reviewer. Arax likes to find secrets, the deeper and the more hidden the better. Then he likes to uncover them and reveal them to anyone who will look and listen.

He does his job masterfully in The Dreamt Land, which is about many things, including his father, himself, environmental degradation, Indians, immigrants, salmon, corporate agriculture, and the lives of migrant workers, who are treated like feudal serfs in the Central Valley, a mirror of the state. Still The Dreamt Land is mostly about California water (including the kind that comes from Mt. Shasta and fills plastic bottles) though Arax ends his symphonic book by talking about fog and one particular tribe of Indians who lived around Buena Vista Lake and Kern Lake.

“The Yokut had a saying that when the farmer drained the last drop of snow melt from Tulare Lake, the water would return,” Arax writes. “It would return as tule fog would return to remind the white man of his theft.” It’s a lovely thought. I’ve heard California Indians express similar sentiments. Global warming, they say, is payback for the destruction of land, the water, the air. The fog is Arax’s last thought on the last page of his 562-page book. “The fog is our history,” he writes and suggests, at least to me, that California is a murky, mysterious place on a par with the fog of war. Getting beneath and behind the fog takes patience, endurance and luck.

Arax is not the first author to look into the fog and beyond it.

He will not be the last. When it was published in 2019 The Dreamt Land seemed built to last a century. It is still a classic and an enduring work of literature. But already the land and indeed the whole planet have changed yet again, with apocalypse fast approaching on the horizon and time running out for Californians who are, on the whole, the most optimistic of Americans. If hope dies in the U.S it will die last along the Pacific Ocean, somewhere between San Francisco and San Diego.
Of course, water is a slippery subject that has ebbed and flowed in dozens and dozens of books, including Marc Reisner’s epic Cadillac Desert, Norris Hundley’s diligent The Great Thirst and Obe Kaufman’s small and potent “data-driven” The State of Water in which he writes, “To dominate the distribution of water is to dominate life.”

These books and many others on the same subject crowd the corner room which serves as my office in an old, two-story building in the heart of San Francisco’s financial district. The building, once a printing office, survived the 1906 earthquake and fire; not long ago this part of town, which was known as “the Barbary Coast” sat at the edge of the Bay. The owner of the building, an architect in his nineties who shies away from publicity, has followed the water story since about 1945 when he lived in a San Francisco boarding house. The other day the 93-year-old architect told me, “we are winning.”

“We,” being the environmentalists. He also told me that I should approach the subject at hand with a sense of optimism, though he also pointed out that environmental groups fight one another for mailing lists, donations and their place in the sun. Too often egos get in the way of the work.

There are probably more books about water in California than any other subject, except perhaps the Gold Rush, which “industrialized mining,” as Arax shows, made some men rich and that was an unmitigated environmental disaster that he writes about again and again and especially in Chapter 7, “Eureka,” which begins poetically, “What is gold but a vein. What is water but the blood that runs in a vein. The mining of gold is the mining of water first.”

You can’t write about California and not write about water. Write about California topography, geography, economics, history, biology and more and you must write about water, surface water and groundwater, (which is under the ground) and snow and rain. Also, a thorough journalist must write about the absence of water known as drought, which occurs every summer, when it rarely if ever rains.

For hundreds perhaps of years, as tree rings testify, California has endured long droughts. There has hardly been an extended period of time when there was no drought. Indeed, one might say that drought is the new normal. In the last chapter of his book, “Holy Water,” Arax writes, “there is no average here.” He adds, “It rains. It floods. It doesn’t rain. Drought comes.

During my first winter in California, which was in 1975-1976, it hardly rained. Drought was my introduction to California, specifically to Sonoma County, north of the Golden Gate. Then a torrential rain storm struck my house and land. Roads flooded. The wind knocked out the power lines and the phone didn’t work. I was isolated.

The redwood groves along the coast, I discovered, were rainforests. The Russian River would spill its banks and flood farms, pastures and towns like Guerneville. More recently fire and smoke have been added to the mix. The new normal is extremes of weather; heavy rainfall, flooding, inferno-like fires, and extended drought. They’re all connected.

Not long ago, I mounted an exhibit with a photographer named Karen Preuss that we called, “Parched, Drenched and Scorched.” The photos, along with my texts, were on view in the building where I now have my office. When we took down the exhibit I thought that I was done with floods, fires, droughts and other catastrophes. Boy was I wrong! Floods, fires, droughts and other catastrophes were not done with me or with California and all of the west. (Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert is subtitled The American West and Its Disappearing Water.) 

What’s happening here in California is happening elsewhere. Like politics, water is local. One farmer might have more than he or she can use, while a neighbor has to truck it in. Arax paints that picture. At the same time, he shows that all water is regional and global.

In California, as Arax demonstrates, water flows from North to South, West to East, from mountains to valleys and from largely unpopulated, remote locales in the Sierras, to mega cities such as San Diego and Los Angeles. Ag grabs 80% of the state’s supply of water; cities 20%. There’s always a push and a pull between the two. In the era of global climate change, the battle is becoming more and more heated.

The City of Angels is of course the setting for Roman Polanski’s noir classic, Chinatown, which nails the nexus between water and power and the personal and the political in California. Arax mentions the film, but only in passing. Chinatown has been connected to the story of water so often that it’s now a part of the mythology of state. Often when I’ve talked to Californians about the subject of water, they’ve interrupted me and said, “Chinatown,” as though that’s all there is to say. In a way they are right, though they’re also wrong. There are more than a dozen big different water stories in California.

In the twenty-one chapters that make up Chasing the Dream and that follow the state’s major crops and some of its big industries— including cattle ranching, which devours water—Arax tackles the major stories, some of which are set in the past. Gold led to cattle, cattle to wheat, wheat to grapes, grapes to almonds and almonds to pistachios. Whatever the market dictates. Arax goes back before the first settlers arrived. “California Indians didn’t need to move the water to survive,” he writes. He adds, “Only the Paiute of the Owens Valley and the Cahuilla of Palm Springs erected water-conveyance systems that sought to even out the extremes of mountain and desert climes.” That’s some mighty savvy technology.

Arax tells the Owens Valley story, which has been told many times before. Reisner tells it masterfully in Cadillac Desert. Still it’s a story well worth repeating, especially how Los Angeles and men like William Mulholland, stole land and water from hoodwinked farmers, some with guns in the Owens Valley. Arax also makes sure to bring JFK into the water story and at precisely the right moment. The president was with California Governor Pat Brown when ground was broken for the San Luis Reservoir which when completed would store water from the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta and send it via the California Aqueduct to valley farmers.

On that day, JFK said what must have been obvious to many of the 12,000 people in the audience, including the representatives of big ag. But it was good to hear the president himself say it: “We can see the greenest and most rich earth producing the greatest and richest crops in the world. And then a mile away we can see the same earth and see it brown and dusty and useless, and all because there’s water in one place and there isn’t in another.”

Arax is wise not to dissect Kennedy’s speech that speaks for itself. Wise also not to analyze and interpret Chinatown. Still, his portraits of real life water oligarchs like Stewart Resnick— who created an empire in the water poor “Westlands”— provide enough information for screenwriters to create at least half-a-dozen contemporary villains who might replace the celluloid Noah Cross in Polanski’s film.

If only the studios had the guts to make them. Stewart and Lynda Resnick are masters of PR, marketing and advertising. According to Arax, they changed “the way food was grown in California and sold to the world.” He adds, “If they were farmers, they were farmers who hung out with Tom Hanks, Steve Martin, David Geffen, Warren Beatty and Joan Didion.”

At the end of The Dreamt Land, Arax offers a comprehensive program that includes: build no more dams; expand the capacity to hold snow and water; restrict groundwater pumping to safe levels; retire millions of acres where farming is unsustainable; prevent urban sprawl; create agricultural preserves; and conserve, conserve, conserve. That’s what I’m doing right now. The State Water Board has asked San Franciscans to cut water use by 5%. Will that alleviate the crisis? It might. But unless and until it rains again, we’re in big trouble.

We need exactly what the ag oligarchs and the politicians who live in their deep pockets don’t want. Big government that’s on the side of people like Tom Joad, the undocumented workers on Resnick’s plantations, and the many California residents who are forced to use water that’s not fit for barnyard animals. Is it too much to call for a new New Deal, and a Green New Deal that would help the poor, the thirsty, the battered, the homeless and the hungry, along with the fish and all living creatures that cry out for clean water in a state that’s called “Golden.”

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.