California has a reputation for endless natural bounty and wide economic possibility. But its epic recent drought has put pressure on this idea. Without water, the state’s huge agricultural sector is threatened, along with its swimming pool-centric lifestyle.
The photographers Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris represent this changing reality in a new exhibition in Berkeley called the Art/Act: The Canary Project. Following the American River from its source in the Sierra Nevada mountains through to where it meets the Sacramento River, they show its beauty, its intensive infrastructure, and its vulnerability.
“The history of development in California depends on water, and that water has been regarded as an exploitable resource,” says Morris. “It’s clearly overextended at this point and some kind of change in how we regard water is going to need to happen.”
A photo from another series shows a large field in the Central Valley: an irrigation system leaking water in an apparently barren plot. It speaks to the wastefulness and inefficiency of current water use, particularly in the agricultural industry, which uses 80% of the resource, yet delivers only 2% of total economic output.
The photos mostly lack distinguishing features like people or cars. They’re meant to be timeless, as if they’re from the future. Morris hopes viewers will see the images, imagine the present, and “think of a way out of it.”
Sayler and Morris also hope we’ll get back to treating water as a shared asset, not something to be privatized and traded to the highest bidder. “As water becomes more scarce, it will become a commodity controlled by people with more money. Before we create water markets, there needs to be a lot of caution about who’s in charge of this commodity,” Morris says.