Where I Was From: California and Federal money, by Joan Didion

“A good deal about California, in its own preferred terms, does not add up.” This is the start of the third chapter of Where I Was From. Why does it not add up?

Consider this. The Sacramento River, “the main source of surface water in a state where distrust of centralized government has historically passed for an ethic”, used to end in a huge swamp for a good portion of the year: it was

regularly and predictably given, during all but the driest of those years before its flow was controlled or rearranged, to turning its valley into a shallow freshwater sea a hundred miles long and as wide as the distance between the coast ranges and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada: a pattern of flooding, the Army Corps of Engineers declared in 1927, more intense and intractable than that on any other American river system including the Mississippi.

What put an end to that marsh? Federal money, of course. By 1979 there were 980 miles of levee, 438 miles of canal, 50 miles of collecting canals and seepage ditches, three drainage pumping plants, five low-water check dams, thirty-one bridges, ninety-one gauging stations, and eight shortwave water-stage transmitters. The Sacramento Valley is now an entirely artificial environment.

That’s not all. The railroad West was built through a federal cash subsidy. For decades, Californian irrigation and Californian crops were subsidized by the American taxpayer. As recently as 1993, hundreds of thousand of acres in California were planted in cotton, rice and alfalfa: alfalfa alone, a low-value crop, required more water than was used in the households of all thirty million Californians.

The Pentagon was, of course, the sugardaddy of the aerospace and defence industry, until the early ’90s slump and the hundreds of thousands of job losses in Southern California, as factories moved to friendlier states or just shut down.

The most effective lobbying operation in Sacramento, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, had by the early 2000’s about 29,000 union members. With thirty-three penitentiaries and 162,000 inmates, California had the largest correctional system in the western hemisphere. The prison guards were the political muscle behind the 1994 “three strikes” initiative. About Don Novey, their union leader, it was said: “If Don Novey ran the contractors’ union, there’d be a bridge over every puddle in the state”. And it was in 1995 that, in a statistic that still shocks me even though I have every reason to believe that Didion – a diligent investigative reporter –  has double-checked her numbers,

for the first time, California spent more on its prisons than on its two university systems, the ten campuses of the University of California and the twenty-four campuses of California State University.

Well worth, well worth reading, my Californian friends.

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