The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


The Dreamt Land: Mark Arax On the History of California’s Water

We have all read that California is burning. Wildfires continue to threaten, and destroy, communities across the state. They are so numerous that the Los Angeles Times recently published a guide for those who have “lost track of all the California fires.” 

These fires have become repetitive, even normal. More commonplace are the causes often attributed to the trend: drought, rising mean temperatures, in short, climate change. But there’s more to this story, a history of man’s dominion over the land and its resources that is complexly intertwined with our contributions, and reactions to, climate change and environmental disaster. 

In California, this history is the history of its water. This is the theme of Mark Arax’s latest book, “The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California.” Water is the lens through which Arax views his home state, weaving journalism and histories of family, geography, agriculture, and power. 

BackStory spoke with Mark Arax about the history of California’s water as it flows through the American Dream and its limits, genocide and erasure, and cycles of flood and drought, memory and forgetting.

The cover of "The Dreamt Land" depicting an orange-hued, arid landscape.

BackStory: There’s so many different elements to this book, it’s a history, it’s a family history, it’s journalism. How did you keep those in balance within the project, and why did water form your lens for examining California? 

Arax: You can’t write about California without writing about water. Look at what we did to invent California. We invented the grandest water delivery system in the history of mankind. That system is what allows us to defy our essential nature, and we’re defying it as we speak. We’re building houses in the path of wildfire. We’re planting thousands of acres of new trees in the wake of historic drought.

Water is literally the lifeblood of California. When you see the system from the air, it looks like the circulatory system of the human body. You have this delta in the north that looks like the heart, and these rivers that run from the Sierras across the width of California to the ocean. That movement is what allows California to be what it is. Two-thirds of our rain falls in the north, while two-thirds of our population is settled in the south, so somehow we had to figure out how to solve that riddle.

Water has been a theme of all my books in some way. I was looking to write a book for people that knew nothing about water and knew very little about California, so I had to make it compelling. I spent a lot of time on the storytelling. I bring my own family story to bear in that.

I’m not someone who flew into California to write this book. I’m a native son, so I engage with the land through our family’s last farm along the San Joaquin River, the sale of that farm before I was born, and moving to the suburbs of Fresno where my only relationship to water was the ditches and canals that knifed through our suburban neighborhoods.

As a kid I never thought to ask, “where’s that water coming from, who is it going to?” Well, it’s going all the way across to the farmers on the other side of town. By what right is it going to them? Who gives them the right to take that water if it’s a public trust, a public resource? 

Aerial shot of waterways snaking through farmland.

Numerous waterways snake through the delta where the Sacramento River and San Joaquin River meet. Photograph by Bill Daley, iStock

BackStory: Through this personal level, in the story of your family as well as the stories of different people that have made up California’s history, you really convey a sense of the American Dream, its natural and political limits, and the way those limits are intertwined. It also comes across very clearly how different the limits were for different groups of people over California’s history.

Arax: Exactly. California in the 1880s has a choice between continuing to mine gold, which is polluting the rivers and polluting the farmland, or mining the soil. We decide we’re going to mine the soil. The very industrialists who made the most money off of gold decide that they’re going to farm the middle of California. Planted in all wheat – they’re industrialists after all.

That monoculture of wheat ended up robbing the fertility of the soil. That’s where in the early 1900s, you see the idea that given the special soil climate and Sierra water of California, we need to grow specialty crops, fruits, vegetables and nuts.

In the 1900s, you see the selling of the myth of California to the world, grapes as big as jade eggs and the watermelon so big you can scoop the meat out and float down the shells in the river. These trainloads of pallid people, sick people, folks who have tuberculosis, conjunctivitis, come by the thousands to California to eat the oranges and drink the air of this place. 

The turbine pump is invented, and farmland is allowed to go away from the alluvial plain of the rivers and tap into these distant aquifers on marginal ground. That’s when you see the explosion of the farmland.

The California Aqueduct carrying fresh water through the dry, hilly San Joaquin Valley.

The California Aqueduct carrying snowmelt down the San Joaquin Valley. Photograph by Joel Pickford

BackStory: I want to explore with you this idea of genocide and erasure. You mentioned the Armenian genocide throughout the book as well as the genocide of California’s native populations. Parallel to that is the erasure California’s rivers, of the San Joaquin River.

Arax: That’s right. We erased a landscape. Geologists would end up calling what we did to to California the greatest alteration by human hand of any environment in the history of mankind. One erasure on top of another erasure on top of an effacement on top of a wiping clean. That’s what you see today in the Central Valley.

BackStory: That brings in another idea of a cycle of memory and forgetting. For example, there’s drought and then there’s flood, and people forget the drought immediately.

Arax: I think it was Steinbeck that said that no one forgets a drought faster than a farmer. I would amend that and say no one forgets a drought faster than the farmer and the developer. 

It’s catching up to us as you and I are talking now. The hills and chaparral are burning across California again. We don’t need climate change to have very violent swings of weather in California, it’s our whole history. But when you hitch climate change onto our own inherent nature, you’re going to see things that have never happened before. 

The advent of technology has actually expanded the footprint of agriculture such that it’s no longer sustainable. We start by digging canals and ditches and siphoning the flow of the rivers. Then we sink pumps deep in the earth to draw up the groundwater, sinking the land.

Rows of dying trees in a parched orchard.

The folly of an orchard planted too far from water’s reach along Interstate 5. Photograph by Joel Pickford

We have drip irrigation that we think is going to save water because it comes out in minute, portioned-out sprays and drips. But in fact, drip irrigation has allowed us to move farmland up the hills where furrow irrigation couldn’t go. It’s allowed us to grow crops on land that’s just junk ground, ground that should never have been farmed.

You see now in the San Joaquin Valley where I live that there’s 6 million acres of farmland, and probably 2 million of those acres are no longer sustainable. They require too much groundwater. That’s the big correction that we’re facing now. It took California, which likes to think of itself as a very progressive state, 165 years to regulate groundwater. Now we’re regulating it, and if the state holds the farmers’ feet to the fire it could reduce the footprint of agriculture by as much as 2 million acres.


Mark Arax is a journalist and author whose writings on his native California have received numerous awards for literary nonfiction. He is the author of four books. His latest, “The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California,” is out now.

Headshot of author Mark Arax.