New American Dustbowl, Mr. Heathcock (1 of 3)

I am very impressed with Mr. Heathcock’s longform piece on how growers are responding to this year’s drought in the San Joaquin Valley.

I commend him for:

Focusing on the growers and their attitudes. The two major drivers in California’s water system are climate and people. A detailed article about the people for whom we move water shows us the forces (primarily their emotions and influence) behind how we got here.

Going the distance. Mr. Heathcock visited some obscure places and put in the driving hours.

Writing a beautiful and specific article that gives me enough material for commentary.

He did make some common outsider mis-steps, which I only noticed because he tells us about them.

He writes that he is surprised at the lack of talk about the weather. Heh. Why would we talk about the weather? From May to October, I can tell you exactly what the weather is going to be: hot, dry, clear. There’s nothing to talk about.

He mistakes “four hundred thousand to eight hundred thousand acres left idle, or 1,250 square miles of land on the high side” for a lot of land. Longtime readers here know there are about 9.5 million irrigated acres in California (round up to 10M irrigated acres if you want to do easy math). So he’s talking about 5% to 9% of California irrigated acreage idled this year, a year that received about 30% of its snowpack.

He traveled a ton of distance, so I can’t fault this one bit, but he missed that there are different (and occasionally rival) sets of farmers in California. Some century-old farms are in no danger up in the Sac Valley. Others in the Delta are specifically threatened by the actions of the south San Joaquin Valley growers.

This detail surprised me; I don’t think someone with a long familiarity with CA water rights would have included it.

Russ and Jim check on his well. His orchard is only hundreds of feet from the Kings River, which would naturally replenish his well if the river wasn’t dry.

If the Kings River is replenishing the well, the well is not sucking groundwater. It is taking the sub-surface flow of the Kings River. Unless the well owner has an appropriative right to Kings River water (with diversion method specified as “well”), that is straight up water theft. I would have left that out of an article meant to be kind to the well owner.


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One response to “New American Dustbowl, Mr. Heathcock (1 of 3)

  1. Heathcock’s essay is really good. Empathetic, well written, very good photographs. I too hope that climate change and its weather are benign to Central Valley farmers. But I worry about the whole enterprise. It is an idea, not a fact.