Floods, farms and river river

8 months ago
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These words accurately describe the scene I encountered in January, about 70 years after the novel was published. The drought seemed like a distant memory; the green slopes of the hills contrasted with the swift, muddy current of the Salinas. Along River Road, I met a couple taking a morning walk along a muddy path along swollen Salinas. The man told me that in the nearly 30 years they had lived in the city, he had never seen the Salinas so big, although, he added, the river had indeed carried a larger and more constant flow in past decades. “This used to be a slaughterhouse,” he said, pointing to a row of houses by the river. “They dumped blood directly into the river. The water has always been red.”

As I drove out of town on Highway 101, it began to rain, hitting the windshield. In the short breaks between showers, the earth turned into a foggy dream. I stopped at an exit overlooking the river and the massive San Ardo oilfield. A rainbow arched over the Gabilan Range in the distance. A few months ago these hills were sunlit and deserted. Now they glowed bright green, and the river ran roaring, carrying dozens of massive logs in its course.

I was hoping to get to the water’s edge on a pothole road in an oil field. But the road was blocked by a barricade and two trucks of private security. In one of the cars, a man leaned back in his seat, apparently asleep.

Just because I had passed this section of Highway 101 dozens, if not hundreds of times, I began to notice that there were no scenic exits that drew attention to the valley river of the same name, no nature reserves or coastal parks. Usually, the only sign of a river’s existence is a blue squiggle on a GPS map, an abstraction that masks the reality that what’s left of the river is forever tied to industry.

I think the Salinas is neglected in part because it is a hidden river by nature. It begins as a series of obscure streams, many of which are discontinuous, flowing through the chaparral and low pine forests of the Temblor and Coastal ranges. Its anonymity is enhanced by the fact that the river is inaccessible for most of its length; it passes through private property or along the outskirts of small and remote towns such as Chualar, Gonzalez, San Ardo, Soledad, San Miguel.

Founded by Spanish settlers and missionaries in the 18th century, these small agricultural towns are today nestled in an agricultural landscape that collectively produces 28 percent of the nation’s strawberries, 57 percent of celery, and 70 percent of lettuce. Monterey County has also become one of the leading producers of wine grapes in the country. Every time you take a sip of Cabernet or bite into a Caesar salad, chances are good that you are, in fact, drinking from Salinas.

Over the past decade, water scarcity has taken a huge toll on farms and agricultural workers in the Salinas Valley. Now the problem was too much water—or at least too much too quickly. With thousands of acres under water, dozens of farm workers were suddenly out of work. However, I saw dozens in the fields working during the storm. Clad in raincoats, they hunched over the muddy rows of berries and vegetables, picking what they could before flood waters washed away the crops. Even during the catastrophe, the brutal economy of the Salinas Valley prevailed: the lives of agricultural workers were clearly less valued than the crops they tended. Meanwhile, their own neighborhoods were the hardest hit by the floods. They were trapped between rising flood waters and lost wages. The flooding in the Salinas Valley hit the hardest on the people who could least afford it.

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