© 2017 by Amanda Bensel

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California Thirst

August 14, 2016

 

The veil of fog had already lifted by the time I departed Monterey, that blessed haven of reasonable temperatures in the middle of a scorching California Summer. The air dried out almost entirely by the time I'd reached Hollister, a small farming town blocked from coastal temperature bliss by a few low foothills. With no air conditioning in my old truck, the open windows usually suffice to keep driving temperatures tolerable. But the climb up and over another set of foothills engulfed me in hot air, so much so that it felt as if I were driving through dragon's breath, licking my cheeks in taunting defiance. It was so insufferable I felt as if I were trapped in the giants jaws and that fire could surround me at any moment.

 

Just over the summit, a large reservoir came into view, or one that once claimed largeness anyway. It had obviously been low for several years, for I could see grasses and underbrush overgrowing the old high line – about 100 feet above the current glistening water. Bleached yellow fields surrounded this patch of pale blue as far as the eye could see, giving the distinct impression of a mirage amidst the sandy dunes of the Sahara.

 

Once down from the summit I continued due east across California's agricultural heartland, the San Joaquin Valley. Within a mile I crossed three aqueducts, each with it's name on a tidy sign. A mile further a billboard had the text: “Food grows where water flows” over a backdrop of greenery and smiling farmers. Indeed the landscape had notably shifted in color, from the intense golden yellow of the dry spanish grasses to neat rows of olive-green bushes and trees. A photograph of the scene may have successfully conveyed the illusion to a viewer far from here, but blasting by in the bone-sucking heat broke the spell almost immediately. One day without water and those trees would surely be doomed.

 

I'm a native, born and raised, Californian. And I have to admit that despite being quite aware of the severity of this drought and actively conserving water (and admittedly being one of those people who scolds others to do the same), I hadn't actually felt the drought in person quite like this. In fact I had, as many Californians do, successfully avoided any significant first-person experience of it's reality for many years. (full disclosure: I had been living abroad and/or along the coast for the past twelve years). Thus the severity of our situation here sank in as I rattled along through the unrelenting heat on my way into the sierra foothills. I had hoped the foothills would offer some relief, but instead the climb up into forested land left me further dumbfounded. Nearly 25% of the trees were brown and clearly long past dead. That is how unquenched the California soil sits. Trees are dying of thirst. Trees, our largest and often oldest plants, with the farthest reaching root systems, were failing to find the water they needed to survive. Goodness knows what the poor surface dwelling creatures must be going through.

 

California is pretty much always on fire this time of year, and dropping in on this scene makes it easy to see why. Even the cool and misty coast struggles. I had just left behind the largest fire of the summer, the Soberanes Fire in Big Sur, which had burned straight through 85,000 acres in 3 weeks.

 

I am reluctant to admit it, but the truth is: this makes me truly afraid for California, for my home. It feels like a single spark could set the entire state aflame.

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AMANDA BENSEL