The Land of Dreams and Drought

The California dream, with its promise of never-ending sunshine, fertile soil and rivers running with gold, has been beckoning people west for over two hundred years. But making that dream come true for an ever-increasing population has taken its toll on the landscape. Is the California dream coming to an end? When its current water system was built in the 1960s and ‘70s, California’s population was about half of the forty million who live there today. And every one of its citizens needs water to drink, bathe and cook. Add to that the demands of agriculture, livestock and the natural ecosystem, and the pool of available water gets smaller and smaller. “When the resource is finite then you have to make choices,” says author Mark Arax. “And so in the San Joaquin Valley they're gonna have to choose which land deserves that water. It's alfalfa, it's Holsteins.” In his new book, The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California, Arax pulls back the curtain on the backroom deal-making between billionaire investors and regulators that has, in some cases, stolen the water right out from under our feet. Faith Kearns, a scientist with the California Institute for Water Resources, says it’s been going on for years. Even she has trouble keeping up. “I think there is a lot of stuff that goes on really behind the scenes and that is completely inaccessible to most of us, even those of us who work on this topic professionally,” says Kearns. California now experiences regular weather whiplash, amplified by climate change, careening between record drought and extreme rainfall. Diana Marcum won a Pulitzer Prize for her series of articles on California’s central valley farmers during the drought. Years of parched weather have taught her to appreciate the green times we do get. “I think that’s one thing I took away from the drought,” Marcum recalls. “During it I kept thinking, I wish I would've paid more attention. I wish I could picture the snow. I wish I could picture the grass. So right now I'm trying to look so hard that it almost hurts” Guests: Mark Arax, Author, “The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California” (Knopf, 2019) Diana Marcum, Reporter, Los Angeles Times Faith Kearns, Scientist, California Institute for Water Resources This program was recorded in front of a live audience at The Commonwealth Club of California in San Francisco on July 17th, 2019. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit

by Climate One