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Journalist, biographer, and memoirist Arax (West of the
, 2009, etc.) offers a sweeping, engrossing history of his native
California focused on the state’s use, overuse, and shocking mismanagement of

“Our water wars,” writes the author, “began 150 years ago,
at least. What’s changed is our old nemesis drought has been joined by the new
nemesis of climate change—and thirty million more people.” Traveling “from one
end of California to the other, from drought to flood to wildfire to mudslide,”
he chronicles in absorbing detail the transformation of the state’s Central
Valley from modest seasonal farms to huge agribusinesses exporting pistachios,
almonds, mandarins, and pomegranates. His story begins in 1769, when Father
Junípero Serra, reporting to the Spanish king, combined religious fervor with
sophisticated agriculture, building dams and wells and diverting streams to
grow wheat, apples, citrus fruits, dates, olives, and grapes. Yet while the
land yielded a bounty, the Native American laborers and converts fell victim to
European diseases. “In the matter of a single decade,” Arax reports, “tens of
thousands of natives from San Francisco to Santa Barbara died from foreign germs.”
After the demise of the Spanish missions, Mexico stepped in with “the first
great California land grab,” doling out thousands of acres to gentry. That land
grab was hardly the last: The author offers sharply etched portraits of some of
the most imperious landowners, including Johann August Sutter, who in the 1850s
became the state’s “biggest farmer, storekeeper, innkeeper, distiller, miller,
tanner, manufacturer, enslaver and liberator”; “cattle king” Henry Miller, who
from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s controlled more than 10 million acres,
including a few rivers; and Stewart Resnick, the wealthiest farmer in America,
perpetrator of clandestine deals and secret pipelines. Drawing on historical
sources and nearly 300 interviews, Arax reveals the consequences to land and
wildlife of generations of landowners who have defiantly dug, dammed, and
diverted California’s waters.

A stunning history of power, arrogance, and greed.

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