And yet the Central Valley is in many ways an agricultural paradise. The soil is rich—remarkably so. The weather is warm—reliably so. For all its riches the valley looks nothing like paradise, and in drought years like this one, its shortcomings are excruciatingly obvious.
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Dust rises from fallowed fields, often thickly enough to obscure the snowcapped Sierra Nevada in the distance. The whole place seems to stagger under a heavy blanket of grit and heat. Here, where rain is just a lucky break, farmers have long depended on two interconnected sources of water. Many use surface flows from the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers, divvied up according to water rights that date back to the 19th century and delivered to fields via a complex network of pipes and canals. Most supplement this plumbing with groundwater, and in the driest corners of the valley, aquifers are so overdrawn that fields have sunk by more than 30 feet.
On this land farming takes money: money for the equipment to move water to fields, money to survive the driest years, and money to fight the constant legal and political battles over water in the state. Most farmers in the Central Valley win and lose on a grand scale, cultivating hundreds of acres of land and selling millions of dollars of crops every season. That gamble is getting riskier. Today most major rivers in the West are saddled with a complex system of dams, canals, and aqueducts. Most years the Colorado River never reaches its mouth in the Gulf of California, and its once lush delta has become a vast mudflat.
Salmon and other fish are struggling or gone altogether. Hetch Hetchy, a mountain valley said to have rivaled Yosemite in beauty, was flooded in to provide water to San Francisco. Yet in their way these systems work. They make uninhabitable land habitable. And they make it possible to grow food in places like the Central Valley. As the climate changes, scientists predict that the southwestern U.
Decades of measurements, taken by hand or automatic sensors, show dramatic decline. Readings are taken yearly on April 1, when snowpack water content has historically peaked. More than reservoirs capture flow in major river basins, bringing water to places that could not otherwise be as populated—Las Vegas, Phoenix, or San Diego, for example—or as agriculturally productive. Vegetation such as chaparral and ponderosa pine flourishes with occasional wildfires.
But a drier West has seen more frequent and intense burns. Protecting a rising population has hiked firefighting costs. As in most of the rest of the American West, fortunes depend less on how much precipitation falls from the sky than how much of it falls as snow and how long that snow stays in the mountains. Name required.
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