There is No Drought: California’s Twisted Water Ways

12.26.14 - For millions of years, the rivers lacing through the lands now known as California meandered freely from the mountains to the oceans. Rain fell on the robust redwood forests in the north, slowly trickling through layers of soil, sand, and rock to fill the streams and aquifers that in turn fed the rivers. Where these rivers met the ocean, as they still do today in the Bay Delta, marshy estuaries flourished with abundant wildlife. Humans arrived, the ancestors of surviving native peoples like the Ohlone and Winnemem Wintu, and they lived in balance with their home for thousands of years. There were wet years and there were dry years, but the healthy network of natural aquifers continued to sustain life.

In the few short centuries since this land was colonized by European settlers, it has transformed from the source of life into just another source of money, a collection of resources to be exploited for profit. People have changed, too. Few of us remember how to thrive in wilderness, though many grope for a life worth living and find little fulfillment in today’s capitalist world. Thousands of miles of pipes bring us water, and as this infrastructure grows, we become evermore detached from the natural world and dangerously dependent on systems we have no control over.

Prop 1 Passed But The Fight Continues

Under pressure of drought, 14.5% of California residents over age 18 voted “yes” on Governor Jerry Brown’s pet Proposition 1, the Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014. This is the $7.5-billion water bond that’s supposed to fix the state’s water problems. Thanks to this astonishing democracy, that means Prop 1 passed despite the fact that only a small proportion of California’s residents agreed it was a good idea. With interest, the bond will end up costing more like $14.4 billion—and will be paid off at a rate of $360 million per year over the next four decades. That bill, of course, will be paid through tax money and utility increases. So if you pay your taxes and your water bill, you’ll be paying off the water bond.

Sandwiched between funding allocations for nice-sounding
things like groundwater cleanup, wastewater recycling, and water quality improvement, the Water Act includes $2.7 billion for building unspecified new infrastructure like dams. This round of infrastructural changes will pave the way for another project: the deceptively named Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP). The BDCP is a policy holdover from the Schwarzenegger years and is basically a greenwashing scheme to sell the Twin Tunnels project. Governor Jerry Brown and California’s largest corporate agribusinesses have proposed building two underground 35-mile and 40-foot wide tunnels—the Twin Tunnels—to divert the Sacramento River and maximize water exports from the San Francisco Bay Delta to the corporate farms of the southwest San Joaquin Valley and on to South State cities and suburbs. A constellation of groups oppose the Water Act and the Bay Delta Conservation Plan for a variety of reasons, spiritual, ecological, and economic.

The Winnemem Wintu, whose ancestral territory spreads along the lower McCloud River area above Shasta Dam, opposed Prop 1 on the grounds that many of their sacred sites would be flooded in the likely event that water bond funds go towards raising the Shasta Dam. The “Middle-Water People,” as the Winnemem Wintu are known, have held several War Dances at Shasta Dam since 2004 and continue to fight for the restoration of the northern rivers and the return of the salmon.

In their own words: “The salmon are an integral part of our lifeway and of a healthy McCloud River watershed. We believe that when the last salmon is gone, humans will be gone too.”

Fishermen and ecologists also opposed Prop 1 due the harmful effects it will have on the already suffering Bay Delta estuary and its fish populations. The Center for Biological Diversity warns of the “smeltdown in the Delta,” the impending extinction of the tiny delta smelt fish. The delta smelt is an “indicator species,” one whose rapid population decline signals the poor health of the greater estuary ecosystem. Some predict that the smelt may be extinct within 20 years due to record-high water diversions from the Delta’s tributaries into the state’s water system, pollutants including pesticides and herbicides from Central Valley farms, and harmful nonnative species. The Twin Tunnels would only exacerbate all of this. If the smelt disappear, longfin smelt, salmon, and sturgeon will, too. This concerns the fishing industry, of course, which stands to lose a great deal of money if fisheries collapse and can no longer be exploited for profit. This capitalist opposition stands in contrast to that of others, like us, who do not see the earth as a “resource.”

We instead see ourselves as the caretakers and protectors of the earth—of which we are part—and we struggle against its further degradation, period.

Drought Doubts

Recently, many journalists have lit upon the theory that the current dry period is not exactly exceptional. If a drought is defined as a period of “abnormal lack of precipitation,” then
we’re not technically in one. While we may be three years deep in the longest dry stretch in California’s recorded history, the fact is that California’s short recorded history actually spans an abnormally wet period. As luck would have it, California became the fruit, nut, and veggie capital of the United States during a time when it’s climate shifted and there was more rain. But now that the climate is reverting back to its long-range drier norm, 38.3 million people live here and hundreds of millions more rely on its farms for some of their most basic nutritional needs. The forecast is indeed catastrophic.

The Insatiable Thirst of the Rich

Rich people are excellent at taking advantage of exceptional phenomena like disaster and war. They see everything in terms of potential profits, and drought is no exception. Water—specifically its capture and distribution—was central to the growth of 20th century Californian capitalism. Los Angeles would not be the well-hydrated metropolis it is today if the Owens Valley to the east had not been drained into the city’s aqueducts during the California Water Wars of the early 1900’s.

California is the fruit basket of the United States, producing nearly half of all domestically-grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Farms use a huge 80% of the state’s “developed water,” or water that is diverted from rivers and aquifers and into pipes and aqueducts for human use. Corporate agribusiness donated $850 thousand to the Prop 1 campaign. Obviously, this is no coincidence. That contribution—which may seem large—is actually quite small when compared to the profits derived from the heavily irrigated farms of the Central Valley. In 2012, the state’s agricultural exports brought in $18.8 billion. With the drought on, it’s easy to see why thought it wise to make sure Prop 1 passed.

Beverly Hills power couple Stewart and Lynda Resnick are really, really rich. The pair’s current net-worth is estimated at $3.8 billion by Forbes.com, so their paltry $150 thousand
donation to the Prop 1 campaign’s war chest was no big deal. Their lavish lifestyle includes two spectacular mansions, one on Sunset Blvd, the other in Aspen, CO. Some of their major assets include Fiji Water, Teleflora, POM Wonderful, Suterra (agricultural pesticides), and Paramount Farms, the largest grower of tree crops in the United States. They farm 125 thousand acres of water-intensive pistachio and almond orchards in the San Joaquin Valley and reap millions in profits. According to Slate.com, almonds alone use 10% of California’s developed water supply.

In a shady 1994 backroom deal known as the Monterrey Agreement, a handful of water profiteers and the Department of Water Resources colluded to change state water policy. The resulting Monterrey Amendments allowed the transfer of state-ownership of the Kern Water Bank, the largest underground water storage facility in the world, to a local joint powers authority controlled in part by Resnick’s companies. Today, the Kern County Water Authority operates of out the same building as Paramount Farms, which in turn owns nearly half of the Kern Water Bank. If the Water Act’s infrastructure “improvements” come to pass, and the Twin Tunnels follow, Stewart and Lynda Resnick will have control over a staggeringly huge portion of California’s water supply.

Seize the Day… and the Water!

What happens to the price of something when becomes harder to find? Think bout Twinkies; the price of the little sugar sausage skyrocketed to unfathomable heights on eBay once the factory shut down. Now that production is up and running again, you can get yourself a box of ten for $2.98 at Walmart. The more scarce a commodity, the more expensive it becomes, as long as people still want or need it. So what does that mean for something as essential as water in times of drought It costs more, of course, and like always under capitalism, when something costs more, poor people have less of it. As anyone who has had unfortunate experience of having their water shut off knows all too well, if you don’t have the money, you’re going to be thirsty.

There is absolutely no reason to believe that big agribusinesses will willingly change the ways they operate. They’ll “green” operations with token improvements, sure, because even they must deal with the reality of ecological collapse. At the same time, the state will continue to make infrastructural changes to cope with the looming catastrophe. Lawmakers will collude with their rich friends to make sure everyone’s happy, and then they’ll send the bill to you and me. The only way to stop this is to band together to seize the infrastructure that is running—and ruining—our lives and this land. We have to organize with utility workers to take control of Oakland’s water system, from its source in the Sierra Nevadas, the Mokelumne River, to the pipes running under the street, even the treatment plant. Those who know this land must collaborate to envision another way. Permaculture, habitat restoration, bioremediation—we already have the ideas and skills necessary to begin repairing the destruction wrought by centuries of deforestation, development, and fossil-fueled capitalism. We need only join the creative urge with the passion to destroy this world of toil and misery. In doing so, we will be forced to confront the material infrastructure—the highways, pipelines, factories, and fiberoptic networks—that constitute capitalism’s circulatory system.

And maybe, just maybe, with the all the pieces leftover, we can build a new world where the rivers and the people run wild and free once again.