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

Review by Brian Tanguay

On the coast of California where I live drought has been a constant feature of the past twenty years. Enough rain some years made us forget, but dry years always followed and each felt hotter and drier than the year that preceded it. (NASA recently reported that 2020 was the hottest year ever recorded.) With prolonged drought came a series of wildfires that seemed of an altered character, burning hotter and more fiercely, consuming more acreage, and leaving more damage in their wake. A similar cycle played out in other parts of the state; fire “season” was extended by seventy-five days. More than four million acres burned in 2020, a single year record. Ominously, in April of this year the governor declared that forty-one of California’s fifty-eight counties were in a drought emergency. The situation is so dire that the Edward Hyatt Power Plant at Lake Oroville, the state’s second largest reservoir, may shut down for the first time in half a century. 

It was against this backdrop that I came across The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California by Mark Arax. In an earlier book of his titled The King of California I learned about the cotton titan J.G. Boswell. Until then I had never heard of Boswell or the giant agricultural company he built, nor did I know that cotton was grown in my home state. Access to water was one reason Boswell became so big and influential. Peek beneath all the great fortunes made in California and you will find a link to water. From the use of hydraulics to mine gold to the growing of wheat and cotton on land ill-suited for those crops without massive irrigation, to the building of sprawling suburbs and shopping malls, water has always been the key. In a large, geographically diverse state whose essential nature is drought and flood, controlling water, trapping it, storing it, and then making it flow from where it is plentiful to where it is scarce is an eternal challenge.

It’s fair to say that water is the California story, and Mark Arax, born and raised in Fresno, the grandson of an Armenian immigrant who fled the Turks, tells it brilliantly. The Dreamt Land deserves a place next to the best books written about water in California. It’s a seamless, wide-ranging blend of history, memoir, and story-telling, often elegiac in tone, particularly when Arax writes about his family and growing up in an era when modest family farms were still viable. The movers and shakers, past and present, who had a hand in settling and creating California are here. John A. Sutter, the first to plant wheat and whose outpost, Sutter’s Fort, provisioned gold hunters and fortune seekers; the cattle baron Henry Miller, who controlled more land and riparian water rights than any other man in the United States and dominated the livestock and wholesale meat market; and in the present, Stewart Resnick and his pistachio, almond and pomegranate empire, who continues to acquire land and plant trees and lord over the town of Lost Hills. The two rivers central to the story, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin, which join to form the delta, remain the subject of endless contention between farmers, fishermen, boaters, and environmentalists over their use. Solving the problem of water required successive feats of engineering never attempted on such a scale, as well as political machinations and manipulations equal to the task. From the Trinity in the north to the Kern in the south, every river in the state was dammed. The dams, along with other major public works like the State Water Project and the California Aqueduct, made cultivation of marginal, alkali land possible, and profitable. 

Pushing nature’s limits built California, but as Arax notes, the limits are now pushing back: “Our water wars began 150 years ago, at least. What’s changed is our old nemesis drought has been joined by the new nemesis of climate change — and thirty million more people.” When allocations of state and federal water are slashed, growers of almonds, grapes, pistachios and other crops tap into groundwater, drilling wells thousands of feet into the earth. But such excessive extraction of groundwater carries consequences: across an area in the San Joaquin Valley the size of two LA’s, the land is sinking a foot a year, the greatest rate of soil subsidence ever recorded. When the land sinks it takes with it roads, bridges, canals and dams. Even a series of major floods will not restore the land’s elevation. And then what will California do? Will we accept nature’s limits or continue trying to engineer our way around them?