Official California has finally gotten serious about the drought. With hopes for an El Niño-assisted recovery well and truly dashed, Jerry Brown announced California’s first-ever mandatory water restrictions on April 1. But we, like so many others in California, have been worried about water and drought for much longer.

Water runs through Boom almost every quarter. To get a feel for how California has been living with and thinking about the drought, spend a little time in the Boom archive. Here’s a sample of what you’ll find, with contributions from geographers and futurists, open data evangelists and photographers, designers and more:

From Children of the Drought:

“This summer we sent young reporters from New America Media’s youth-led community projects out on assignment to capture, in photographs, how the drought has affected their Central Valley communities. The photos they sent back were striking in a most unexpected way: they didn’t include any people. So we sent them out again, this time with the suggestion that they include people in their pictures. Yet even as those pictures rolled in, we came to see a deeper meaning in what young people were capturing with their lenses. For them, the drought was not so much about people but about the land itself. The truth is that while Californians have continued to more or less live their lives—washing their cars, taking showers, running through their sprinklers on a hot summer day—it is the land itself that, at least visually, has borne the brunt of the drought.”


From Myth of a Desert Metropolis:

“That Los Angeles is a “desert city” is, in large part, a myth. Writers have chipped away at the myth of the desert metropolis before.5,6,7 Here my objective is not simply to dispel the myth but to explore the history that underlies the mythology and to consider its potential for becoming true—because sometimes myths have a strange way of becoming true. Could we, through our own actions, be transforming the myth of desert LA into a self-fulfilling prophecy? It turns out, we have in fact gone a long way down that road.”

Mojave Desert and creosote bush on the outskirts of Lancaster, California. Photography by Glen MacDonald.

Mojave Desert and creosote bush on the outskirts of Lancaster, California. Photography by Glen MacDonald.


From What Use is the Future:

“But failure is not our only future. We might, instead, choose to reinvent ourselves again, to become the people who can reconcile prosperity, sustainability, and dynamism. We could raise our vision to take in the whole state and imagine for it and ourselves new ways of life that fit its realities and our own. Because failing exurbs and potholed freeways, government bankruptcies and climate chaos, eroding clear-cuts, dwindling salmon runs and drought-ravaged crops, a permanent underclass and a massive housing crisis—these aren’t the only way to live. We know enough to know that remaking all of that is at least possible. We could rebuild our cities with lots of new green housing and new transit and infrastructure, run our state on clean energy, remake forestry and farming, and look at water in a more sane way. We might even find a future for the suburbs, because if the twenty-first century has a frontier, it will be, as Bruce Sterling says, in the ruins of the unsustainable. All of these things would make us richer, and done properly they would actually become an export industry, because the whole wealthy world needs to figure out all this stuff, too. So those who figure it out can sell it, and should. We need the scale and speed of change that comes with a boom, and the self-transformation you see unleashed in democratic revolutions.”


From A New Water Atlas:


“Another abiding mystery in California’s waterscape is groundwater, which is our second New California Water Atlas project. Groundwater usage has never been fully regulated in California. The state of our overused groundwater aquifers has never been fully understood. Our underground aquifers are connected to surface water, and many are being pumped out at rates faster than they are recharged by water percolating back into the ground. This causes the ground to sink, heavy metal levels to increase, the water table gets lower and lower, and streams dry up. But despite potentially disastrous implications, we have no clear picture of our groundwater levels, and no way to understand the practical realities of our groundwater system for all of the watersheds of California. We will create the map that will change that. Working with scientists, governments, coders, designers, writers, community health and environmental organizations, and water users, we will bring in as much real-time data as we can gather to produce an interactive map of where groundwater is in California, how much there is, and where trouble spots are.”


From A More Absorbent Landscape:

“Water scarcity presents a profound challenge and opportunity for designers of the built environment. The questions reach beyond, where do we get more water? And how do we make do with less? Or even how do we build margins of water security into our cities or restore damaged ecoystems in our source ranges and valleys? These are critical questions engaging vast fields of engineers, economists, environmentalists, and policymakers. But the answers do not all lie in policy or technology. For designers, the questions are physical, spatial, qualitative, and experiential—fully vested in the knowledge that space and place matter. How do we craft cities and buildings that consciously and visibly mitigate, anticipate, and even celebrate, hydrologic variability? How would architectural systems, building codes, and zoning laws have to change? What shape would neighborhoods, architecture, and the urban experience take if design fully recognized and exploited the challenges of water scarcity?”



A shepherd opens his pasture's gate. Coalinga, California.

A shepherd opens his pasture’s gate. Coalinga, California.

From Cal-20:

“Using measures of health, education, and income—the Human Development Index—this dusty stretch of agricultural land and small farmworker towns ranks dead last among the nation’s 435 congressional districts. This hidden pocket of poverty is so deep that it surpasses even the Mississippi Delta and the hills of Appalachia in terms of pure human suffering: about 640,000 of the most desperate lives in America, just a few hundred miles up the highway from the opulent Hollywood Hills.

Although the average farmworker in Cal-20 makes just $10,000 per year, the district’s approximately 5,000 square miles encompass some of the richest farmland in the world. This is far from an impoverished land despite the intense poverty of its residents: its fields produce everything from tomatoes and cotton to lettuce and pistachios, fueling the engine of California’s $38.4 billion agricultural industry and lining the pockets of some of the state’s largest and richest landowners.”


From The Giant and the Waterbaby:

“In their oral traditions, Paiutes told an ethnohistory of water and water rights in Owens Valley, which detailed the destructive consequences of economic change and offered a critique of historical changes in the Valley. Seen in the context of a struggle over water and culture, these stories enable us to see ways in which Paiutes re-envisioned their past and made it usable for contemporary political struggles, providing a snapshot of Paiute interpretations of past, present, and future.

Other histories of the Owens Valley Water Wars have treated Paiutes as bit players, something akin to the background that the Alabama Hills offers for movies. Paiutes were not scenery to the story; they were central to the Water Wars, which threatened the very core of Paiute life. The stories tell us that small, seemingly powerless people can slay the giant and tickle Rattlesnake. Perhaps nothing is more valuable than these oral traditions as a tool for understanding Paiute history, politics, and culture, or as a guide to assist modern-day Paiutes in future struggles for natural resources.”

Owens Lake. Photograph by Alan Levine.

Owens Lake. Photograph by Alan Levine.



Image at top by Alyssa Castro, from Children of the Drought.


Posted by Boom California

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  1. […] Drought chronicles: A collection of writings on the drought, from geographers, futurists and photographers. Boom […]

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