All of California’s agricultural land is fundamentally unsustainable and structurally self-destructive. The entire San Joaquin valley was a lake until very recently; Lake Corcoran was one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes. (Wong) It was fed with rainfall from the sea, and its evaporation created a cycle of precipitation which fed both sides of the Sierras and into the great basin. (Wong) This cycle contributed to other formerly vast lake such as Pyramid Lake, Mono Lake, etc. The last remaining section of Lake Corcoran was drained by a slaver named J.G Boswell. (Margolin) He left Georgia after the civil war to try to restart his cotton empire using migrant laborers now that slavery had been banned. (Margolin)
In Southern California, a similar story played out. Lake Cahuilla occupied all of what is now called the Salton Basin. The lake that’s now called the Salton Sea was formerly a fresh water lake, six times as large, and fed by a constant supply of fresh water from the Colorado River. (Hitch) Now it’s a stagnant, polluted, inhospitable relic of its former self, surrounded by dead desert land. The water from the Colorado River has been diverted in its entirety to agricultural irrigation in the formerly shallow areas of the lake which are not above the water line of the Salton Sea, and so this river no longer reaches the ocean or the lake. (Heggie)
The thing about lake doing agriculture in dry lake beds is that the water table drops when you drain the lakes because the inputs to that water table disappear without the lake; the lakes are the source of the groundwater. Without the lakes, every well was draining a non-renewable source of water, and that water is now gone. The San Joaquin valley accounts for 20% of the nation’s agricultural groundwater demand, and produces just 8% of the nation’s agricultural output. (USGS) This is primarily because corrupt congressmen like Doug LaMalfa passed subsidies to pay themselves to grow unsustainable crops like rice. (Wilner) Rice isn’t even profitable or in-demand without those corrupt subsidies and it requires an incredible amount of water to grow. (Fox)
On top of the fact that draining the lakes and diverting the rivers reduced the precipitation cycle and eliminated much of the water which had previously been available to the region, the San Joaquin valley and the Salton basin have some of the worst air pollution in the nation. (Vera) Air pollution prevents precipitation, further decreasing the amount of water that’s available for the region. (Jirak)(Cone)
We see every sign that all of these vicious and interrelated cycles of unsustainable destruction will continue to escalate and worsen, and bring with them a continued exponential increase in drought frequency and severity as well as wildfire frequency and severity. California did this to itself, and it’s hard to see these problems being fixed, now that those drained lake beds contain countless towns and cities, and upstream versions of the same problems in places like Lake Mead mean it wouldn’t be possible to undo the damage at this point even if we decided we want to try.
The Brundtland commission at the UN defined sustainability as being able to meet your short-term needs in a way that doesn’t sacrifice your long-term needs. (International Institute for Sustainable Development) California’s agriculture is a perfect example of doing exactly the opposite. Corrupt and greedy actors like Boswell and LaMalfa prioritized their own short-term income above all else, violating public trust and the survivability of future generations in exchange for untold wealth during their short, miserable lives. We are left in the ashes of the evil of those who came before, standing in a desert that was once a lake, begging for a glass of water that will not come.
Cone, M. (2000, March 10). Air pollution is stifling precipitation, study finds. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved February 19, 2022, from https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2000-mar-10-mn-7291-story.html
Heggie, J. (2021, May 4). Can the Colorado River Keep on running? Science. Retrieved February 19, 2022, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/partner-content-colorado-river-preserving-stressed-water-resources
Hitch, N. (2014, August 23). Ancient lake cahuilla sustained life in the Valley. Imperial Valley Press Online. Retrieved February 19, 2022, from https://www.ivpressonline.com/life/desertmuseum/ancient-lake-cahuilla-sustained-life-in-the-valley/article_8776df84-233c-53ec-ab3b-0e37e6e6d539.html
International Institute for Sustainable Development. Sustainable development. (2013, January 6). Retrieved February 19, 2022, from https://www.iisd.org/about-iisd/sustainable-development
Jirak, I. L., & Cotton, W. R. (2006, January 1). Effect of air pollution on precipitation along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. AMETSOC. Retrieved February 19, 2022, from https://journals.ametsoc.org/configurable/content/journals$002fapme$002f45$002f1$002fjam2328.1.xml?t%3Aac=journals%24002fapme%24002f45%24002f1%24002fjam2328.1.xml
Margolin, M. (2003, October 12). A land rich in lore, rich in cotton, poor in spirit. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved February 19, 2022, from https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2003-oct-12-bk-margolin12-story.html
USGS, California Water Science Center (n.d.). California’s Central Valley. California’s Central Valley | USGS California Water Science Center. Retrieved February 19, 2022, from https://ca.water.usgs.gov/projects/central-valley/about-central-valley.html
Vera, N. (2021, August 20). San Joaquin Valley has one of the worst air qualities in the world right now. YourCentralValley.com. Retrieved February 19, 2022, from https://www.yourcentralvalley.com/news/local-news/san-joaquin-valley-has-one-of-the-worst-air-qualities-in-the-world-right-now/
Wilner, J., Johnson, R., & Group, B. A. N. (2018, April 20). Rep. Lamalfa highest earner of farm subsidies in Congress, report shows. Chico Enterprise-Record. Retrieved February 19, 2022, from https://www.chicoer.com/2017/12/08/rep-lamalfa-highest-earner-of-farm-subsidies-in-congress-report-shows/
Wong, K. (2006, September 30). Carquinez breakthrough. Bay Nature. Retrieved February 19, 2022, from https://baynature.org/article/carquinez-breakthrough/