‘The Dreamt Land’


Mark Arax, Knopf, 577 pages, $30. When delegates to the second International Irrigation Congress convened in Los Angeles in October 1893, pessimism about their mission was not supposed to be on the agenda. The gathering was meant to encourage reclamation of arid lands throughout the American West, using irrigation to transform an immense wasteland into an agriculturally productive cornucopia. Thus when John Wesley Powell rose and delivered his now-famous caveat about the limits of development in the region, they responded by booing the esteemed explorer off the stage. Powell’s warning was clearly not what champions of Western agriculture wanted to hear. And so they went ahead with their boldest plans to redistribute the precious resource, embarking on a century-long binge of dam-building, aqueduct-laying, canal-digging and well-sinking. The effort, particularly in California, amounted to a wholesale re-engineering of the existing hydrology to suit the needs of ranchers and farmers. “The Dreamt Land” is Mark Arax’s deeply reported account of this problematic achievement. Though focused mainly on the present state of affairs in California’s Great Central Valley, the book offers a capsule history of the state and the principal players in the rise of agriculture. Little about the agricultural situation today seems wildly out of tune with this long history of rapacity and environmental abuse. Arax makes plain in this important book, it’s been the same story in California for almost two centuries now: When it comes to water, “the resource is finite. The greed isn’t.”