California has long been America’s Promised Land, for hundreds of years enticing frontier residents to take huge risks with the promise of gold, oil and lush farmland.
But as climate change leaves cities dry and increases the risk of catastrophic fires, and large cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles become inaccessible, is the end of the California Dream coming?
Since the gold rush began in the 1850s, the state has experienced tremendous population growth as people from all over the world have sought their fortune in the west.
The population grew again after World War II when the defense and aerospace industries reopened.
Then came the technological breakthroughs of the 1980s and 1990s, which made Silicon Valley on the map of the world.
But for the first time in its history California’s population declined last year.
Californians give up on dreams
America’s most populous state lost 182,000 people in 2020.
This may not sound like a lot for a state of 39 million people, but it’s the equivalent of all Santa Barbara residents and all Santa Monica residents who pack up and travel elsewhere.
More people are leaving California now than they are moving.
California’s 6.1 percent population growth over the past decade was the slowest in a century and below the national average of 7.4 percent.
Demographers attribute the decline to several factors, including tightening immigration policies, declining birth rates and rising deaths from the coronavirus pandemic. This resulted in the state losing its seat in Congress for the first time in its 170-year history.
Compared, Texas, which quickly became the new home for entrepreneurs, young families, and Silicon Valley representatives. because of the affordable lifestyle it offers, got two seats.
Locals will tell you that people are leaving this happy state because of high taxes, its political leaders, and the increasing likelihood of catastrophic weather conditions such as wildfires and heatwaves.
And some Californians simply cannot afford to live here.
San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego have become expensive, and house prices are rising with the rise of Silicon Valley.
Critics argue that it crowded out and humiliated many middle-class Americans and created an ever-widening wedge between the poor and the super-rich in the state.
But California’s struggles are not limited to cities and the surrounding suburbs.
Reaping the benefits of the state’s rich agricultural land has become nearly impossible for many Californians, whose families have cultivated the land for generations.
Locals fear 2021 could be a crisis
Francesca Marchini, 32, is the fourth generation of her Italian family, who are farming in California’s Central Valley, the heart of the state’s agricultural industry and home to some of the richest soil on the planet.
But even she is not sure if the California dream, which her ancestors set off in search of from Italy in the 1920s, will be fulfilled for her own children.
“I encourage them to be diverse because I don’t know how to farm for my children or my brother’s children right now,” she said.
As a little girl who grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, Ms. Markini dreamed of staying on earth and raising a family in the middle of an almond farm.
Now she does it with her husband, four-year-old son Jeffrey and two-year-old daughter Maggie. But she worries about the future as the state’s water supplies continue to dwindle.
“It is our passion and our heart to keep farming,” she said.
“We just want to grow the best product, but water is the key to growing these products, to deliver them domestically and around the world.
“This is definitely an unknown future.”
The effects of the latest severe drought, which lasted about four years until the end of 2015, are still being felt.
The aquifers that farmers rely heavily on when there is little winter rain or snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains have been severely depleted in recent years.
Many areas depleted by the latest drought have not recovered, forcing farmers to drill new wells that simply go deeper into the water table.
As a result, cities literally began to sink.
“I definitely think we will have to live with this new norm – less water,” said Ms Markini.
“We’re not in crisis yet, but 2021 could be a crisis.”
Drought forces tough decisions
About two hours south of the valley, the signs of drought are even more evident.
Although the landscape of the state often becomes dry and parched, summer is approaching in the northern hemisphere, abnormally mid-May.
At John Guthrie’s ranch, which has been owned by his family for 150 years, there is about a third of the grass on the ground than usual when we head out into the dry months.
One of its vital dams is usually overflowing at this time of the year and fed by other tributaries in its territory.
In mid-May, it was already dry to the bone.
“It’s warmer than usual now, warmer in the past and lasts longer, we have these catastrophic wildfires … so something is definitely different,” he said.
“What worries me is the next 10 years, the next 20 years with my family, I’m afraid we are in a downward trend.”
This forced Mr. Guthrie to sell more cattle than he would like, move his current herd to greener pastures, and buy hay at a huge price.
If not for his last name, he would have thought about getting ready.
Families with long-term ties in California are considering moving
Tom Mulholland’s family, located at the foot of the scenic Sierra Nevada Mountains, has been growing citrus fruits in the San Joaquin Valley for 60 years.
He was the largest supplier of tangerines to Australia during the off-season and worked with the Woolworths to create Delight.
Its origins in this region are deeply rooted. His grandfather was the chief engineer who designed the controversial aqueduct system that brought water to Los Angeles in the 1900s, paving the way for the city’s meteoric rise.
But even his deep roots were not enough to keep him in the game.
About a year and a half ago, he made the difficult decision to sell his business.
“If there is no water, there are no plants. [We need] soil, water and sun, ”he said.
“We have the sun, thank you. We still have mud here, but without water we cannot do it here. “
Mulholland believes climate change is to blame.
“The denial is being written, but I think science will prove that there is indeed warming on Earth,” he said.
While acknowledging the impact of the tech industry on less fortunate Californians, he sees this as the next frontier, one that could actually lead to more sustainable farming practices.
“What can we achieve from here? Elon Musk could build rockets and cars from here in California, ”he said.
“Look at all the important discoveries made in Silicon Valley, these are all new ways to look at it.”
“I didn’t know what to do, water is needed.”
Decades of overrun aquifers to feed the state’s booming agriculture have an influx effect, especially for low-income communities in the Central Valley.
One day Carolina Garcia turned on the taps and nothing came of it.
For two weeks, her family was left without running water after the well they had relied on for over ten years dried up.
“I was sad, I was desperate. I didn’t know what to do, ”Garcia said.
“Water is necessary, it was difficult to see the suffering of our children.”
Unable to pay tens of thousands of dollars for the new well, Ms. Garcia turned to help.
The family of 10 will now live off two temporary water tanks donated by a local nonprofit until the city pipeline reaches their home.
Self Help Enterprises has helped 300 other families, like the Caroline family, across the valley.
Since April, demand has jumped 40 percent.
Without the donation, they would have been forced to pack up and leave the state.
“We probably would have had to move to a different location,” she said.
But Ms. Garcia is ultimately a California girl.
“I know that I will probably be judged by many people, but I don’t care, I’m just happy [to stay]… ”