"The heart of the West is a desert, unqualified and absolute." -- Walter Prescott Webb

SALMON FALLS, Calif. -- Late in the 19th century, an expatriate Irishman from County Donegal named Tiffin Patrick Cannon settled down to farming near the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers outside of the then-sleepy California capital of Sacramento.

He was my grandfather. While I never met him, I know from family legend that he was an adventurer who had tried his hand at many other things before following the ancestral agricultural calling. My father Jack, the seventh and youngest of Tiffin's children, once took me to Donner Pass to show me remnants of an old dirt road where his father had driven a stagecoach over the Sierra Nevada during the 1870s.

When Tiffin Cannon turned to farming, as my own father would also do late in life, he found that the soil of the Sacramento Valley was fertile and productive in comparison to the depleted, rocky ground of Donegal. But he also learned that Sacramento was unprotected from the floods that roared down the rivers in wet winters. To escape that threat, he eventually moved his family to a farm 30 miles upriver near a bend in the American River named Salmon Falls.

But in the mid-1950s, long after Tiffin had passed away, man intervened with ironic effect: A few miles from the farm, California built the Folsom Dam to protect Sacramento from the floods that had caused Tiffin Cannon to move to Salmon Falls in the first place. Salmon Falls vanished beneath the waters of Folsom Reservoir and the farm went with it.

Now, nature has intervened anew: More than four years of fierce California drought have shriveled the reservoir to barely one-sixth its usual size. Built to hold a million acre feet (43,560,000 cubic feet) of flood water, Folsom is now down to 162,000 acre feet. "Lakeside" homes overlook mounds of mud amid receding ponds of water. Boat ramps at state park sites are stranded grotesquely hundreds of yards from the shore.

Nevertheless, an enterprising real estate company is trying to attract home buyers with a man-made waterfall. And the farm where I spent splendid summers as a boy is now rising ghostlike from the reservoir.

So I returned here, hoping to see what might remain of my father's family's once-safe haven. The buildings, of course, were long gone, but the farm remains a living memory of a time, not that long ago, when California rural families lived without electricity and raised their food on the land. I recognized the rounded outline of Goat Hill, where the goats ran wild and where we gathered mushrooms after winter rains. Not far away, the old stone bridge at Salmon Falls now spans dry land.

The sight of the bridge and the hill stirred happy memories, even though I know these apparitions are ominously dry auguries for California, a nation-state now home to nearly 30 million people where the population is increasing by almost 65,000 each month.

I am one of these new residents, having returned after more than a decade away. Most of us live in Southern California, a desert in disguise where the sun shines endlessly in winter and most cities depend upon drinking water imported from the Colorado River or the Sacramento Basin, an area two-thirds the size of Virginia. The water system includes Folsom Reservoir and many of the 154 other major California reservoirs that store water for the irrigated farms of the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys and the ever-growing cities.

The gigantic Metropolitan Water District (MWD), a wholesaler serving 15 million Southern Californians, including Los Angeles, recently reduced water deliveries to its clients for the first time since 1977, the last major drought in the state. It acted after evaluating what MWD spokesman Bob Gompertz called "frightening information" from long-range weather forecasters.

Many Californians refuse to acknowledge that they live in a desert as arid as the Middle East. Partly, that's because finding water hasn't been very difficult. When Southern California exhausted its ground water in the first decade of this century, it cornered (or stole, as many histories assert) the water supply 300 miles away in Central California's pastoral Owens Valley. When drought came to California in 1948, Southern Californians mounted a political crusade to tap the northern rivers. It took 12 years, but in 1960 voters narrowly approved $1.75 billion in bonds to build the State Water Project, which now supplies the MWD with almost half its water, brought 600 miles through a huge aqueduct from the Northern California reservoirs to the populous south.

But recognition of reality is growing after a succession of dry winters. The desert nature of the state is fully realized in Santa Barbara and neighboring Summerland, where I live, communities that now rue having turned down state water in an attempt to limit growth. Bumper stickers belatedly proclaim, "I want state water." Water rationing is so strict that homeowners routinely go days without showering or even flushing their toilets, and let their lawns die. Santa Barbara, in its fifth year of drought, has had a quarter-inch of rain since Sept. 1. In normal times, four inches would have fallen.

I was thinking about these water shortages as I stood on a ridge at Folsom, overlooking a dry creek that maps describe as the south fork of the American River, and gazed in wonder at the specter of the reemergent family farm.

Strictly speaking, the farm was not actually my grandfather's when I spent my summers there. By the time of my boyhood, the place was in the hands of a dour uncle named Will Miller, the husband of my father's sister Clara, who had raised Jack after their mother died while giving birth to him.

But my father talked about the farm as if it belonged to Tiffin. And that was how my brother and I always knew it. In the summers we had the run of "The Farm," as we called it without identifying the owner. We learned to milk cows and catch frogs and crayfish in the creek that ran into the American River. I attended the seventh grade in a one-room school house beneath Goat Hill. Sometimes my uncle would quarrel with the school teacher, a soft-spoken but dedicated woman who objected to his habit of rounding up the boys at afternoon recess to help him herd stray dairy cows back into the barn.

Necessity prevented my uncle from sharing the teacher's view that our lessons were more important than the cows. The milk from the two dozen cows and whatever profit he made from selling the hundreds of goats on Goat Hill were his only sources of income. Will Miller was always out of cash, but he worked hard and didn't need much money on a farm that was self-sufficient except for a few store-bought staples such as sugar and flour.

My uncle grew corn, potatoes, melons and various vegetables and milked cows by hand. They provided our milk and butter, as well as cash. My aunt raised chickens for eggs and food. Each year my uncle butchered a hog and cured the bacon and ham in a homemade smokehouse. We had plenty to eat. Our light came from kerosene lamps, although the farm finally received electricity shortly before it was condemned to its fate at the bottom of Folsom Reservoir.

The Farm was a wonderful place for a boy. It was a California illusion that we thought would last forever.

Irealize now that my uncle's 360-acre farm, a true family enterprise, was even then an anachronism in California. When it was condemned along with many similar small farms in the mid-1950s and disappeared beneath Folsom's waters, it wasn't even noticed outside the family.

The agricultural miracle of fruits and vegetables that the world associates with California comes instead from vast tracts of desert brought into bloom with irrigated water stored behind the great federal and state dams built during the last 60 years. Orchards and rows of irrigated crops now extend in almost unbroken lines for 500 miles through the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, making California the richest agricultural state in the nation and one of the most productive farm regions in the world. Many of the farms are owned by agribusinesses that produce such water-consuming crops as rice and cotton.

And this blooming desert has become a reproach to the parched city-dwellers of California. The fields are a newer illusion. Walter Prescott Webb observed prophetically in 1957, two years after The Farm was inundated, "The overriding influence that shapes the West is the desert. That is its one unifying force. It permeates the plains, climbs to all but the highest mountain peaks, dwells continually in the valleys. The desert is the guest that came to dinner, never to go away."

Slowly, Californians are beginning to realize this. "A fact is starting to have an impact," says Assemblyman Phil Isenberg of Sacramento, who wants the legislature to impose mandatory state water conservation measures.

Isenberg's "fact" is that agriculture consumes more than 80 percent of all water used in California. And even though the amount of acreage under irrigated cultivation remained basically static during the 1980s as substantial amounts of irrigated farmland were converted into subdivisions, water for farming is a ready target for the thirsty newcomers to the south.

New MWD rules will reduce agricultural deliveries of water by 20 percent on Feb. 1 -- and residential deliveries by only 5 percent.

Isenberg believes that the drought, in a curious way, is welcomed both by conservationists such as himself, who see it as the opportunity to advance proposals for water conservation, and by agricultural interests, who hope it will revive a plan to build a new canal to take water from the Sacramento River before it reaches the saline-tainted Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the lowest point in the state's two great interior valleys.

Conservationists oppose such a canal on grounds that further diversion of fresh water will only speed the destructive saltification of The Delta, a national resource of 738,000 acres, 700 waterways and 60 islands of rich farmland. The drought has almost extinguished the striped bass and salmon fisheries in the Delta, whose farmlands are being invaded by tidal salt water because the three rivers that empty into it no longer carry sufficient water to repel the sea.

But California is a state of mind where even severe drought cannot discourage immigration. When the state suffered through its most prolonged drought in the 1930s, it was home to six million people. By 1977, the driest water year of the century, the population had reached 21.5 million. Now it is 30 million and climbing. The MWD alone serves 3.5 million more people than in 1977.

These statistics tell an alarming story, one that I cannot quite comprehend. But I know what the drought means when I see the ghost farm of my boyhood, which soon will once again be high and dry.

Lou Cannon covers the western United States for The Washington Post.