We Tell Stories

Disasters bring home this truth: we live in place. Precise locations that can flood, burn, shake, and slide (and if you live in Southern California as I do, all four are possible, imminent). Wildfires, for example, can incinerate large swaths of forests, chaparral, or grassland, but their individual burn patterns are site- and vegetation-specific. Earthquakes pulse down fault lines, many of which are well mapped (but not all). They cannot happen just anywhere any more than can mudslides; the latter will rocket down some canyons, slopes, and cliffs but not others. 

Put differently: disasters are localized, however global their reach. That realization has helped me think about how to narrate those moments when floodwaters roar downstream, fires erupt, the earth shakes, and bluffs collapse into the sea. Narrative possibilities that are central to my forthcoming book, Westside Rising, that probes the impact of the 1921 flood that ripped through San Antonio and especially its barrios. These same authorial commitments were key to the lived experiences I tried to capture in Not So Golden State. Deep in the Heart of San Antonio, and On the Edge.

Always the goal has been to tell stories about the land, about its contours and topographies. How and why we read our way into it. How and why we wonder about our place within its embrace, whether this place is as wide as the West, as narrow as a creek bed, or as slender as a sidewalk. Our imaginings of these spaces are at the base of how we interpret what we believe to be their meaning. There is nothing earth-shattering about this claim for the divining power of the human imagination, not least because the clues seem so omnipresent, just waiting to be seen, read, and told. 

Like those visible each day to tens of thousands of Los Angeles commuters who creep along the Golden State Freeway (Interstate 5) as it swings through the Glendale Narrows, heading into downtown or San Fernando Valley. This pinch point in the city’s sprawling urban geography frames the windshield—hills to the east and west create a pass that the Los Angeles River has carved over the millennia, a curving energy that, as David Brodsly observed in LA Freeway: An Appreciative Essay, established the “structural continuity” of transportation through this section of Los Angeles. The Tongva traveled along the river’s broad banks to make use of the fifty-two-mile-long riparian corridor. At the confluence of the river and the Arroyo Seco, which helped shape the narrows, they established a settlement that later Spanish missionaries would appropriate into their community-development scheme. Horses, carriages, and wagons rolled along these same banks as a north–south passage that in time would be paved over with the construction of Riverside Drive just to the river’s west; the eastern flatland was absorbed into the regional railroad grid, the site of the now-abandoned Taylor Yard. Arcing over this animated network is the Golden State, a fourth generation of movement scored into what Brodsly calls this “earthen tablet.” When my students and I slop in the LA River beneath this revelatory junction point, we talk about being alert to such palimpsests that can reveal our dynamic engagement with the past. 

There are other signals waiting to be interrogated, such as those I flashed past one fine spring day as I drove north on Interstate 5 up and over the Tehachapi Mountains and into the fertile Central Valley. Two sets of them lining the four-lane highway narrated competing stories about the drought wracking California in the second decade of the twenty-first century. The most in-your face were the ubiquitous billboards and placards decrying the lack of water flowing to Big Ag operations that dominate the valley’s economic activity. For them, the culprit for this low(er) flow is not climate-driven drought but the U.S. Congress. Some of the messages demonize particular politicians. Most strike an ominous tone, as if a conspiracy is afoot: Stop the Congress Created Dust Bowl! No Water = No Jobs! No Water = Higher Food Prices! A handful of others encourage Southern Californians to see their shared pain; water restrictions bite just as hard in Kern and King Counties as they do in Los Angeles and San Diego. 

Yet what was happening on the ground—the physical reality—offered a counter narrative to these signposts of a polarized and polarizing political landscape. Everywhere, water was on the move. Ditches fanning out from the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project were flush, a rush of white gold on its way to irrigate row crops, orchards, and groves. The sun glinted off flooded rice fields. Sprinklers arced across new beds that stretched out to the horizon, aerosoling the sky with a rainbow hue. Tractor and pickup tires were mud-encased. 

The source of this water, amid a deepening drought, was puzzling. Since 2010, there have been well-announced cutbacks of water deliveries to urban and rural consumers dependent on the steadily shrinking Sierra snowpack. Industrial, residential, and agricultural users have been hyperalert to the impact of this five-year dry spell and in some cases have been actively involved in conservation initiatives, making do with less.

Not everyone has been so savvy or proactive. But it was not until I spotted an article in the Modesto Bee that I understood how some of the same folks shedding crocodile tears about reduced water deliveries are implicated in the problem they so vehemently denounce. “Irrigation districts provide water that’s key to agricultural prosperity in the Northern San Joaquin Valley,” noted reporter J. N. Sbranti in his front page, top-of-the-fold piece, “but some of those districts also have been cashing in on the region’s water resources.” 

The amount of money involved is staggering. After digging into the relevant data, Sbranti calculated that local irrigation districts in San Joaquin, Stanislaus, and Merced Counties mined 1.5 million acre-feet of groundwater be – tween 2004 and 2014 and then sold a significant portion to out-of-district agencies to the tune of $140 million. Ka-ching! 

Surely that delightful sound is music to the ears of the managers of the Oakdale Irrigation District (OID), for example, in eastern Stanislaus County. Since 2004 it has sold 40,000 acre-feet for a tidy $35 million, a strategy that contained an odd wrinkle: “Despite having surplus water to sell from its Sierra reservoirs, OID continued to pump its Valley wells.” 

Why would it sell off hard-to-replenish groundwater instead of already available snowmelt? Why would it fill its coffers while seriously depleting local supplies? Why choose the short-term, if lucrative, fix when doing so will only exacerbate its long-term problem?

This district’s actions, and those of its peers, are hard to fathom. Then again, maybe not. Diametrically opposed to any form of groundwater monitoring—which the state finally began to require in 2015—they have been making bank during the drought. The Westlands Water District, which is cash rich but water poor, has been an eager buyer of their waters, and in 2013 alone, it paid $4 million to OID for 40,000 acre-feet. At the same time, it scooped up surplus supplies from Merced, Patterson, and West Stanislaus Districts, a spending spree that helped to drive this sharp increase in pumping. 

What appeared to be an economic boon to the affected water districts quickly began to exact a steep cost. As Fresno State’s Sarge Green told the Modesto Bee, when local aquifers are overdrafted, they start subsiding, a process that has long complicated life in the valley and will continue to do so as long as overpumping continues. With subsidence, water quality and quantity are also compromised. 

Green also noted this irony: The Central Valley Project, whose concrete-lined canals now move around this newly pumped groundwater, was a New Deal–funded initiative designed in part to wean local farmers off that very finite supply. What those in the 1930s recognized, we have forgotten: once these aquifers are depleted, they cannot be reclaimed. The social consequences of this environmental collapse will be profound, wreaking havoc on the Central Valley’s agricultural economy and disrupting its urban development, a drying up of options and a diminishing of opportunities—much as an earlier generation of farmers experienced after they laid down levees and pumped the once-massive Tulare Lake into but a memory. When that happens, when Big Ag and its irrigation-district allies start sucking up mud rather than water, what then? 

That question, deliberately left hanging, is central to the narrative tropes that run through many of my recent books. It probes the choices we have made and will make about how we wish to live, work, and recreate in this place we call the American West. About the choices that have led us to inhabit spaces urban, rural, and wild. Or to hunker down in the desert, press out to the beach, nestle into tight canyons, build atop foothills and ridgelines, and sprawl along valley floors—or build in fire zones or dangerous floodplains. By making these disparate landscapes our home we complicate the natural systems that drew us to them in the first place. Exploring these tensions has long been the subject of my teaching and writing about the western United States, an enduring focus on identifying some of the critical historical, political, ecological, and social contexts that define the many environmental issues that shape life in this vast, and vastly complicated, region–its dailiness and disasters. Through the writing of these stories I have also been confronted with the need to think a bit more carefully about the various layers of meaning embedded in them. 

Starting with this: we live in place.

Char Miller is the W. M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis and History at Pomona College and the author of Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream, On the Edge: Water, Immigration, and Politics in the Southwest, and the forthcoming West Side Rising: How San Antonio’s 1921 Flood Devastated a City and Sparked a Latino Environmental Justice Movement.

Published by Char Miller

I am the WM Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis and History at Pomona College and my recent books include Hetch Hetchy: A History in Documents, Theodore Roosevelt: Naturalist in the Arena, and the Nature of Hope: Grassroots Organizing, Environmental Justice, and Political Change. Forthcoming is Westside Rising: How San Antonio's 1921 Flood Destroyed a City and Sparked a Latino Environmental Justice Movement.

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