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Drought in Pictures: A Decade of Chasing Scarcity Across California

Drought is not an easy subject to record in pictures, and yet such images are vital to understanding water problems. Photographer Nathan Weyland describes why he devoted himself to documenting California’s drought.

Written by Matt Weiser Published on Read time Approx. 8 minutes
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Juan Gonzalez of MTD Farms in Firebaugh, Calif., despairingly holds a baby tomato that was planted the day before. But it had not been watered and is near death.Nathan Weyland

What does drought look like? After five years of water scarcity in California, what images will people remember that may help avoid the next drought, or at least encourage better water management as new living habits?

These are the questions photographers have pondered as they have worked to document the drought. One of them is Nathan Weyland, a freelance photographer based in Oakland. Since 2008, Weyland has devoted his spare time and money to roaming the state in search of drought images.

Some of Weyland’s pictures have been published by the New York Times, Comstock’s Magazine and others. But he’s compiling most of them into an online gallery he calls Managing Scarcity – nearly 600 images from across the state so far.

He hopes to have them published as a book one day, but for now the photos provide a dramatic visual record of California’s five-year water drama. Farmworkers, fishermen, scientists, new water projects, troubled landscapes and suffering fish. The gallery highlights all that and more in an attempt to make sense of this complicated subject.

Water Deeply recently spoke with Weyland about his work. As the state enjoys a rare wet winter, it seemed like the right time to look back at these views of scarcity.

Water Deeply: Why did you decide to focus on the drought?

Nathan Weyland: It was in 2008 when the semi-serious drought started to make headlines again. I was new to water issues, and didn’t really know much about it. I started reading these headlines about drought, and it seemed like something I could continue to photograph for a while, which is something I was looking for: a project.

Since then, when I learn about some drought-related event, I try to get out there and shoot it, no matter what it is. As I’ve learned more, I’ve realized it’s something I could spend a lot of time working on. As I read more about this issue, I figured it would only become more relevant as climate change alters precipitation patterns. That seems to have played out, unfortunately, so it’s kept me busy – when I can find the time and money to work on it.

Water Deeply: Why is drought hard to capture in pictures?

Weyland: It’s hard to be in the right place at the right time for these photos. The state is so big, and there are so many projects going on; and the projects are so tied up in all these stakeholder meetings and development plans. I’ve been following this fish reintroduction project since, like, three years ago, waiting for the chance to take photos when it happens. And I just got an email update that it’s been pushed back another year.

When that cool visual stuff isn’t happening, it’s hard to make pictures because, once you shoot a bunch of dams and rivers and agriculture, you kind of start running out of things to shoot except for things that happen very rarely.

Water Deeply: You’re ultimately trying to assemble a visual record of scarcity, right?

Weyland: Yes, and it’s hard to photograph something that’s a negative – the lack of something. So I guess what I’ve been trying to do is show the efforts that are going on throughout the state to maintain these water systems.

Also, the scarcity can sometimes reveal itself visually. Like in 2015, there were signs that appeared that hadn’t appeared in a long time, like subsidence and lots of fallowed fields and all the reservoirs being more or less completely empty.

Water Deeply: How do you find your subjects?

Weyland: It’s a mix of research and happenstance. A lot of times, in the summers I’ll just take a reporting trip, usually to the Central Valley, and just kinda drive around the dusty towns and meet people – agricultural workers, farmers – and I’ll just talk to them and photograph them.

Then for other things, like the science-related part, it’s much more research-intensive because I have to figure out what people are working on and how they relate to the drought. Then I have to make contact with the scientists and convince them to let me come with them on their field trips. I really like that, because the science aspect is kind of at the headwaters, where all the decision-making comes from. I’m hoping to shoot more of that as the year goes on.

Water Deeply: What are the hardest images to get?

Weyland: Good ones. Good images are the hardest to obtain – images where you can look at the picture and say, OK, this is directly related to the drought and water management, and you can fully understand that without reading the caption and are simultaneously drawn in. Those are the toughest things because there are so many angles to the story that it’s tough. Sometimes I feel I’m working more around the periphery of the core issue of scarcity.

Water Deeply: Could you show us three of your drought photos that are especially meaningful to you? 

Members of the Karuk tribal fisheries unit conduct a juvenile salmon survey on the Klamath River near Happy Camp. April 2013. (Nathan Weyland)

Members of the Karuk tribal fisheries unit conduct a juvenile salmon survey on the Klamath River near Happy Camp. April 2013. (Nathan Weyland)

Weyland: So, the first one shows members of the Karuk tribe doing surveys for juvenile salmon in the Klamath River. I was up there looking into the dam removal project, so I just drove up the river and camped. And later I made contact with the Karuk. And this was a good example of serendipity. They were nice enough to let me follow their tribal fisheries unit.

They do a lot of basic survey science, and they provide that info to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and other agencies to help determine the population of salmon and other things. They were using this really cool net to search for salmon juveniles. And they found none, by the way. It was pretty warm, flat water that year. The river did not look super-good.

The story is really important, too. The Karuk is a really interesting tribe. They’re not federally recognized. They want to be, but they have a lot of tension with the federal government. But they engage in a lot of science, they’re great people and a really fascinating part of the whole water puzzle.

Water Deeply: The next picture, of the tree, is simple and really beautiful. 

A tree rises from the bottom of Indian Valley Reservoir in rural Lake County, Calif., in November 2009. Indian Valley is one of many reservoirs too low and stagnant to support recreation, one of many benefits listed as justification for their construction. (Nathan Weyland)

A tree rises from the bottom of Indian Valley Reservoir in rural Lake County, Calif., in November 2009. Indian Valley is one of many reservoirs too low and stagnant to support recreation, one of many benefits listed as justification for their construction. (Nathan Weyland)

Weyland: That one came about through kind of an accident. My family is from Ukiah, so I was up visiting my grandma with my then-girlfriend, now wife. And the drought was underway, and reservoir levels were very low. I knew about this [Indian Valley] reservoir in Lake County that was very low and had a bunch of trees that had been revealed because the water had gotten so low. This flooded forest had appeared. So I dragged my girlfriend up there, and we were driving around on the lake bed and we got the car stuck.

But that evening, I went out with my camera and lit up these trees. And this ended up as one of my favorite pictures. It’s just visually striking and gets to the core of the whole project. Because it just seems surreal, this tree coming up out of the shrunken reservoir. There’s a lot of surrealness going on in California with the intense drought.

Water Deeply: The third photo also has a surreal quality to it.

Children pose for a picture in front of a mobile aquarium during the 2009 Salmon Festival at the Feather River Fish Hatchery in Oroville, Calif., September 2009. (Nathan Weyland)

Children pose for a picture in front of a mobile aquarium during the 2009 Salmon Festival at the Feather River Fish Hatchery in Oroville, Calif., September 2009. (Nathan Weyland)

Weyland: That was at the Oroville Dam fish hatchery. I had been there most of the day, photographing the hatchery work. They were processing salmon. I wanted to photograph that whole thing because, when I learned what fish hatcheries do and why they do it, I was kind of amazed by this process. It seemed to me like, because of how we’ve re-engineered nature, we kind of have to play God in this way. These fish cannot return to their rivers and complete their natural life cycles. So we have to help them along, basically, by harvesting their eggs and growing them in little boxes.

It just so happened there was also a salmon festival going on at the hatchery on the same day. So they had this mobile aquarium set up: A truck trailer with a giant aquarium on it, basically. I thought it was so interesting that we were right by the river, and to see the fish we have to put them in the aquarium. The whole thing seemed pretty surreal to me.

Water Deeply: What have you learned about the drought by taking these pictures?

Weyland: It’s interesting. When I first started working on it and started learning – and there’s so much to learn, I’m still very ignorant and I’m learning all the time – I got to the point where I felt it was a total quagmire. And there was no escape at all. But as I’ve learned more, I feel there is a possibility for us to make the right changes to make this system more resilient going forward. I’ve become very excited about the potential for success, the idea of good projects being done. Most of them are small pilot projects. But if we change our thinking around this issue, there are a lot of possibilities for really good practices going forward.

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