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Mark Arax: Chasing The Water And Dust Behind The California Dream

Mark Arax’s new book, "The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California," explores how the quest to find and move water has always been essential to the California Dream. He recently won a James Beard Award for a piece in the California Sunday Magazine excerpted from the book. Arax is a former Los Angeles Times correspondent whose books about California and the West have received a number of awards for literary nonfiction.

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Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:00 Well, San Diego is experiencing an unusually what made this year. People in the region are much more accustomed to dry or times and drought. The quest to find and convey water has been essential to the California dream from the time of the Spanish settlers to early rainmakers like Charles Hatfield, who came to San Diego in 1916 with promises to conquer the weather journalist and writer mark. Eric's digs into the golden state's water history in a new book, the dreamt land chasing water and it dust across California. He spoke with California report hosts Sasha Coca. So this book starts with your own story and the story of your grandfather who came to California from Armenia after the Armenian genocide. In part, he was drawn to California because of these descriptions in the letters that his uncle sent. Can you read us one of those letters?

Speaker 2: 00:52 You're fine. An Eden of pomegranate and peach grapes that hang like jade eggs. Watermelon, so capacious than when you finish eating. They're delicious meat. You can float inside their shells in the cool waters of irrigation canals are means by the thousands of Com. We are farming raisins. We've started to newspapers, a theater group, a literary group and two coffee houses. You must see it with your own eyes to believe it.

Speaker 1: 01:24 So you know, those kinds of lyrical descriptions about how abundant California is have always been part of why people want to come to this state. And you write about this, you know, going back to the 1850s with these myth makers of California, you know, the guys who kind of sold people on the place.

Speaker 2: 01:41 I'm Paul. When he gets here, he sees that he's been sold a bill of goods a little bit. It's a lot of hype and it's this kind of desert that's being reformed. I won't see reclaimed because that means that uh, the man was here before the desert, the desert was here before man. And he sees that it's, it's not quite how is uncle sold it to him or how the sellers and mythmakers of California, we're selling it to the world. And then there's, um, James Hutchings who starts this incredible magazine called Hutchings illustrated California Literary magazine that was explaining California too. It's new inhabitants. And in, in that explanation was changing the place and um, you know, it was like the New Yorker of its day in the 1860s, and this was the hype that was selling California as the gold rush itself was selling California. What made you want to write about water and the California Dream Mark?

Speaker 2: 02:42 I think all my books have been kind of stories of place. As a kid grown up, you know, you're dumb to your place. Like all kids are, I remember these irrigation canals slicing through our neighborhoods and I never thought where were they going, you know, to whom were going and by what right. But it kind of became a quest for you to figure out through history and now who owns and controls the water flowing through those canals. We'll look at the proposition of the first dreamers who came after our natives and sees this land from the natives was, okay, we're going to take this thousand miles of, of the edge of a continent and we're going to call it one state and we're going to have to move the water from where it falls to where the people are living. And in some cases that's a 700 mile hike.

Speaker 2: 03:32 And you know, how was that done while we built the grandest reclamation project in the history of man, the Central Valley project and then the state water project. Uh, but that dilemma still exists, which is okay, you're taking from one place, giving to another, uh, the people who live in the place you're taking or angry about that theft. And so there was baked into it all where these water wars that have become eternal and then this system, which was so magnificent and still is, is cracking because of all the demands we're putting on it. Well, you just won a James Beard award for a piece in the California Sunday magazine. It's actually an excerpt from this book about a modern day water and pyre and America's richest farmer, Stewart Resnick. I mean, here's a guy who's never actually dug a ditch or planted a seed. He controls this empire from Beverly Hills.

Speaker 2: 04:29 What is his story say about California's relationship to water now and about the California dream? The wheat barons, Isaac Freelander, who was six foot seven, he lived on Nob Hill in San Francisco and so did James, Ben Ali Hagen, these barons who made all this money in gold and they farm from a far the valleys. So Resnick is just a throw back to these men. And so he's controls more land and more water than any single person in the state of California. And I say he, I should add his wife Linda, because she is an equal partner. It's this remarkable story of how folks, you know, with enough wealth can capture the flow of rivers and the groundwater and with that plant, you know, Allman trees all the way out to the horizon and then bring folks across the border. So they're not only bending water, they're bending man, because they're bringing people across the border.

Speaker 2: 05:28 People are coming, they're working for them in those fields. I mean this is such a complicated history that you're untangling in this book, you know, going back decades, centuries really. Uh, but as you say, water has always been something that people in California are fighting over. Where are we headed as a state when it comes to water and being able to fulfill the vision of the California dream. Having enough water for everybody. Yeah. We'll, in my lifetime alone, the, the state has grown from million people to 40 million. I mean, how many more can we take? 50 60. These are the questions that we never start off with, but that is the question. Where do you, where can we get to it? It's clear and as you see the development of California in this book, you see that we've overdeveloped suburbia and we've overdeveloped the farmland and the tool to do that was water.

Speaker 1: 06:18 That was mark Eric's journalist and author of the new book that dreamt land chasing water and dust across to California. He was speaking with California report host, Sasha Coca

Speaker 3: 06:30 [inaudible].

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.