Will Californians Become the New Okies?

grapesofwrathdustbowl

Oklahoma farm during the Dust Bowl

Today, although a major ice storm has hit the East Coast, I thought I’d write about another weather catastrophe underway. I have in mind the great drought in California, which is prompting references to The Grapes of Wrath.

Reporting on the area around Fresno, which grows a third of America’s fruits and vegetables and is sometimes referred to as “America’s fruit basket,” a recent New York Times article noted,

Some farms in the western Valley — crippled by cuts in water allocations, salt buildup in the soil and depleted aquifers — now resemble the dust bowl that drove so many Tom Joads here in the 1930s.

The article goes on spell out the seriousness of the situation:

Experts offer dire warnings. The current drought has already eclipsed previous water crises, like the one in 1977, which a meteorologist friend, translating into language we understand as historians, likened to the “Great Depression” of droughts. Most Californians depend on the Sierra Nevada for their water supply, but the snowpack there was just 15 percent of normal in early February. And the dry conditions are likely to make the polluted air in the Central Valley — which contributes to high rates of asthma and the spread of Valley Fever, a potentially fatal airborne fungus — even worse.

And:

Pumping from aquifers is so intense that the ground in parts of the valley is sinking about a foot a year. Once aquifers compress, they can never fill with water again. 

The drought is further exacerbated by the failure of various constituencies to regulate their water use. If there were ever a time when Americans needed to abandon their libertarian tendencies and come together for the greater good, this is it.

They might learn something from Steinbeck’s novel, in which the Joads learn that only collaborating with people they don’t know will save them. For a few images of the threat that forces the Okies into this realization, just look Steinbeck’s description of the Oklahoma’s drought, which opens Grapes:

TO THE RED COUNTRY and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

In the water-cut gullies the earth dusted down in dry little streams. Gophers and ant lions started small avalanches. And as the sharp sun struck day after day, the leaves of the young corn became less stiff and erect; they bent in a curve at first, and then, as the central ribs of strength grew weak, each leaf tilted downward. Then it was June, and the sun shone more fiercely. The brown lines on the corn leaves widened and moved in on the central ribs. The weeds frayed and edged back toward their roots. The air was thin and the sky more pale; and every day the earth paled.

In the roads where the teams moved, where the wheels milled the ground and the hooves of the horses beat the ground, the dirt crust broke and the dust formed. Every moving thing lifted the dust into the air: a walking man lifted a thin layer as high as his waist, and a wagon lifted the dust as high as the fence tops, and an automobile boiled a cloud behind it. The dust was long in settling back again.

We are facing a terrible reckoning. Are we up to it?

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