The floods, the farms and the river that roared

Those words aptly describe the scene I encountered in January, some 70 years after the publication of the novel. Drought seemed a distant memory; the green hills contrasted with the fast, muddy current of the Salinas. Along River Road, I met a couple taking their morning walk on a muddy path past the swollen Salinas. In the nearly 30 years they’ve lived in the city, the man told me, he’s never seen the Salinas this big — though, he added, the river has had a larger and more consistent flow in recent decades. “There used to be a slaughterhouse here,” he said, pointing to a row of houses by the river. “They would discharge blood directly into the river. The water was always red.”

As I drove out of town on Highway 101, it started to rain and hit the windshield. In the short breaks between the downpours, the land turned into a misty dreamscape. I stopped at a pullout point overlooking the river and the massive San Ardo oil field. In the distance, a rainbow arched over the Gabilan Range. A few months earlier, these hills were sun-scorched and deserted. Now they glowed a vivid green and the river roared, carrying dozens of massive logs in the stream.

I was hoping to reach the waterfront via a potholed road in an oil field. But a barricade and two private security trucks blocked the way. In one of the vehicles, a man leaned back in his seat, apparently asleep.

It’s only because I’ve driven this stretch of Highway 101 dozens, maybe hundreds of times, that I’m beginning to notice that there are no scenic back roads calling attention to the valley’s namesake river, no reservations or parks along the river. Usually the only sign that there is a river is a blue squiggle on a GPS map – an abstraction that masks the reality, which is that what remains of the river has been forever strained for industry.

The Salinas I think is neglected, in part because it is a stealthy river by nature. It begins as a series of obscure streams, many of which are intermittent, flowing through the chaparral and low-lying pine forests of the Temblor and Coast ranges. The anonymity is enhanced by the fact that the river is inaccessible for most of its length; it cuts through private property or along the edges 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 farming towns are today nestled in an agricultural landscape that collectively produces 28 percent of the country’s strawberries, 57 percent of its celery, and 70 percent of its lettuce. Monterey County has also become one of the largest producers of wine grapes in the country. Whenever you take a sip of cabernet or take a bite of Caesar salad, chances are you’re essentially drinking from the Salinas.

Over the past decade, the lack of water has taken a huge toll on the farms and farm workers in the Salinas Valley. Now the problem was too much water – or at least too much, too fast. With thousands of acres under water, dozens of farm workers were suddenly out of work. Yet I saw dozens in the fields, toiling through the storm. Dressed in raincoats, they bent over muddy rows of berries and vegetables, collecting what they could before the floodwaters washed away the harvest. Even in disaster, the inhumane economy of the Salinas Valley prevailed: the lives of the farm workers were valued markedly less than the crops they tended. Meanwhile, their own neighborhoods were most affected by the floods. They were trapped between the rising tide and lost wages. The flooding of the Salinas Valley took the greatest toll on those least able to afford it.

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