THE DREAMT LAND
Chasing Water and Dust Across California
By Mark Arax
Reported by J. Steven Young
When delegates to the second International Irrigation Congress convened in Los Angeles in October 1893, pessimism about their mission was not supposed to be on the agenda. The gathering, after all, was meant to encourage reclamation of arid lands throughout the American West, using irrigation to transform an immense wasteland into an agriculturally productive cornucopia. Thus the reaction when John Wesley Powell rose and delivered his now-famous caveat about the limits of development in the region.
“Gentlemen,” he told the delegates in the Grand Opera House, “there is not sufficient water to supply these lands.” The gentlemen responded by booing the esteemed explorer off the stage.
Powell’s warning was clearly not what champions of Western agriculture wanted to hear. For them, the problem in the region wasn’t a lack of water, but the fact that too much of it was concentrated in places where it couldn’t be fully used. And so — Powell be damned — they went ahead with their boldest and most ambitious plans to redistribute the precious resource, embarking on a century-long binge of dam-building, aqueduct-laying, canal-digging and well-sinking. The effort, particularly in California, amounted to a wholesale re-engineering of the existing hydrology to suit the needs of ranchers and farmers. It was “California’s irrigated miracle,” as Mark Arax calls it in his new book, “the greatest human alteration of a physical environment in history.”
“The Dreamt Land” is Arax’s exhaustive, deeply reported account of this problematic achievement. Though focused mainly on the present state of affairs in California’s Great Central Valley, the book ranges widely over the course of its 500-plus pages, managing to encompass a capsule history of California before the American conquest, a description of the state’s first attempts at hydraulic engineering during the gold rush (“A miner couldn’t prospect without water,” Arax points out) and an impassioned jeremiad on the intentional decimation of […]