WATER SECURITYHow Can California Solve Its Water Woes? By Flooding Its Best Farmland.

By Jake Bittle

Published 12 January 2024

Restored floodplains in the state’s agricultural heartland are fighting both flooding and drought. But their fate rests with California’s powerful farmers.

The land of the Central Valley works hard. Here in the heart of California, in the most productive farming region in the United States, almost every square inch of land has been razed, planted, and shaped to support large-scale agriculture. The valley produces almonds, walnuts, pistachios, olives, cherries, beans, eggs, milk, beef, melons, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and garlic. 

This economic mandate is clear to the naked eye: Trucks laden with fertilizer or diesel trundle down arrow-straight roads past square field after square field, each one dense with tomato shrubs or nut trees. Canals slice between orchards and acres of silage, pushing all-important irrigation water through a network of laterals from farm to farm. Cows jostle for space beneath metal awnings on crowded patches of dirt, emitting a stench that wafts over nearby towns.

There is one exception to this law of productivity. In the midst of the valley, at the confluence of two rivers that have been dammed and diverted almost to the point of disappearance, there is a wilderness. The ground is covered in water that seeps slowly across what used to be walnut orchards, the surface buzzing with mosquitoes and songbirds. Trees climb over each other above thick knots of reedy grass, consuming what used to be levees and culverts. Beavers, quail, and deer, which haven’t been seen in the area in decades, tiptoe through swampy ponds early in the morning, while migratory birds alight overnight on knolls before flying south. 

Austin Stevenot, who is in charge of maintaining this restored jungle of water and wild vegetation, says this is how the Central Valley is supposed to look. Indeed, it’s how the land did look for thousands of years until white settlers arrived in the 19th century and remade it for industrial-scale agriculture. In the era before colonization, Stevenot’s ancestors in the California Miwok tribe used the region’s native plants for cooking, basket weaving, and making herbal medicines. Now those plants have returned.

“I could walk around this landscape and go, ‘I can use that, I can use this to do that, I can eat that, I can eat that, I can do this with that,’” he told me as we drove through the flooded land in his pickup truck. “I have a different way of looking at the ground.”