Up close

California’s crisis is latest chapter of water flowing to power

In a new feature called “Up Close,” we survey a group of notable recent stories on California’s deep groundwater problems amid an ongoing drought.

Up Close

We explore the issues, personalities, and trends that people are talking about around the West.

As atmospheric rivers blow in from the Pacific and threaten to prompt public amnesia about the West’s continuing drought, the cost of re-engineering California’s water systems over many generations is coming due. The history of the torquing of the state’s natural systems has been vividly recalled by Mark Arax, a reporter and San Joaquin Valley native, who understands every misappropriation of rivers and how we drained California dry.

His vivid reconstruction of — and somber lament for — California water grabs focuses on the remaking of rivers and aquifers to support the San Joaquin Valley’s mighty agricultural industry. To make money and to feed the country, farmers in the Valley need predictability and a regular water supply in a part of California where extremes of water are routine. In Arax’s words, “the water whose too much can destroy us, whose too little can destroy us, whose perfect measure of our needs becomes our superstition and our story.”  The extremes led farmers to look to underground aquifers to ensure predictable supplies. MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW 

The demands for water, wherever it can be found, continue and animate a new Los Angeles Times investigation into the frenzy of well drilling by California farmers that has left taps running dry. As the piece makes clear, the 2014 law designed to ensure California groundwater is used sustainably has failed to protect hundreds of lower-income homeowners whose wells are dry because the aquifer has been drained by large agricultural pumpers. 

Of course the stories about overdrafts have appeared for several years, but now a new collection of stories are showing that the state is mindful of past abuses and won’t accept groundwater plans from two dozen different basins in the San Joaquin Valley. The plans appear to allow aquifer levels to go so low that more domestic wells could run dry. The question state regulators face: will the controls of the much-hailed 2014 groundwater law take effect soon enough, or do the decades of built-in delays ensure sustainability will be unattainable?   SJV WATER CALMATTERS  LOS ANGELES TIMES


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Staff and Contributors

Felicity Barringer

Lead writer

A national environmental correspondent during the last decade of her 28 years at The New York Times, Felicity provided an in-depth look at the adoption of AB 32, California’s landmark climate-change bill after covering state’s carbon reduction policies. MORE »

Geoff McGhee

Associate editor

Geoff McGhee specializes in interactive data visualization and multimedia storytelling. He is a veteran of the multimedia and infographics staffs at The New York Times, Le Monde and MORE »

Syler Peralta-Ramos

Editorial Assistant

Syler Peralta-Ramos is a member of the Stanford class of 2020. He has lived in Wilson, Wyoming his whole life and developed a keen interest in nature photography and conservation from a young age, inspired by the multitude of photographers that congregate in the Teton region as well as his parents who also share a love for photography.

‘& the West’ is published by the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University, which is dedicated to research, teaching, and journalism about the past, present, and future of the North American West.

Bruce E. Cain

Faculty Director

Kate Gibson

Program Manager

Past Contributors

Anna McNulty
Editorial Assistant, Fall 2021
Melina Walling
Editorial Assistant, Spring 2021
Benek Robertson
Editorial Assistant, Winter 2021
Maya Burke
Editorial Assistant, Fall 2020
Kate Selig
Editorial Assistant, Fall 2020

Francisco L. Nodarse
Editorial Assistant, Summer 2020
Devon R. Burger
Editorial Assistant, Winter 2020
Madison Pobis
Editorial Assistant, Fall 2019
Sierra Garcia
Editorial Assistant, Summer 2019

Danielle Nguyen
Editorial Assistant, Spring 2019
Carolyn P. Rice
Editorial Assistant, Winter 2019
Rebecca Nelson
Editorial Assistant, Fall 2018
Emily Wilder
Editorial Assistant, Summer 2018
Alessandro Hall
Editorial Assistant, Winter 2018 
Josh Lappen
Editorial Assistant, Fall 2017
Natasha Mmonatau
Editorial Assistant, Spring 2017
Alan Propp
Editorial Assistant, Winter 2017

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