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Draining the San Joaquin

The Water Privateers

by KATHRYN GRAY

The next time you’re driving on California’s Highway 5, and you see a grove of dead trees sporting those "Congress Created Dustbowl" signs, hold off reaching for your hankie. If you’re watching a Fox News feed of farmworkers who were paid a day’s wages for "protesting" at a Democratic Congressman’s office, wielding commercially produced signs, and chanting "Aqua now," sit back and do a reality check. And if you’ve read about the Pacific Legal Foundation’s petition to call in the "God Squad" to dump the Endangered Species Act, and get those pumps on to save beleaguered Westside San Joaquin valley farms, stop and hum your bible school hymn "All creatures great and small… the good Lord made them all…"

The demonstration you’re seeing on Fox was staged, one way or another. The Delta pumps Pacific Legal Foundation has been having a prolonged constitutional hissy fit about have been on for quite some time, and San Luis Reservoir is filling. Their petition is nothing but a sham attempt to get the Federal Government to consign yet more species, this time several fish which support the entire Pacific Coast Salmon fishery, to extinction. And those very dead trees? Chances are that deceased almond grove belongs to a farmer who’s crying all the way to the bank.

Yesterday, the Hanford Sentinel broke the news that Sandridge Partners, a Westside "family farm", was planning on selling 14,000 acre-feet of Sacramento San Joaquin Delta water a year to the Mojave Water Agency, San Bernardino County, for a mind boggling 5,500 dollars an acre-foot.

Who wants to be a millionaire? This deal will yield 77 million dollars to, wait for it, multimillionaires. Sandridge Partners is owned by the Vidovich family of Silicon Valley, who already amassed a considerable fortune turning Silicon Valley orchards into housing tracts. More recently, according to the Environmental Working Group, as detailed in an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Sandridge Partners were the biggest 2008 recipients in the entire nation for federal subsidies for thirsty cotton, wheat, and peanuts for their farms in three San Joaquin Valley counties. Think of them as Kern County’s Welfare Kings.

Sandridge farms is now, according to the article in the Hanford Sentinel, planning on cutting down 2,500 acres of almond trees along Hwy 5 near Kettleman City, and selling the California Aqueduct water they’ve contracted for, for 77 million dollars, to enable more sprawl in California’s Mojave Desert.

Should our eyes all be glazed over, as this is just another example of Pork du Jour, this time slightly Selenium laced? Absolutely not! Right now there are 5 bills on a rush job in Sacramento, which were ostensibly written to deal with Sacramento Delta water and environmental issues. In reality, these bills, which seek to enact Governor Schwarzenneger’s Bay Delta Conservation Plan, are a giant red herring, not aimed at protecting the very frail Delta, or helping small family farms in the Delta and other parts of the state, but are instead directed at aggrandizing the rights of junior westside water rights holders, and developers in Southern California.

Sacramento San Joaquin Delta is "the next Katrina" according to Senator Joe Simitian, Palo Alto, an early and vociferous proponent of a revitalized Peripheral Canal. The somewhat endearing, but also alarmingly naif former NRDC attorney Jared Huffman, assemblyman for Marin County, seems to truly believe that his bill, which will allow Governor Schwarzenneger to stack a committee to okay the Peripheral Canal, will pull the Delta and the Pacific Coast Salmon fishery back from the brink of doom.

These two unlikely Northern California legislators are the face of the new water buffaloes; instead of driving us to the desert in Cadillacs, so old school, it’s all now a Prius Desert, where environmental greenwash is the order of the day. Their proposed legislation puts paid to the Public Trust Doctrine, which saved Mono Lake from being drained to the dregs by the Metropolitan Water District, a smooth suitor for yet more Sacramento San Joaquin Delta water, ably abetted by the even greedier Los Angeles Times.

To make matters worse, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, BDCP, aka Big Dumb Canal Plan, that they seek to enact had "environmental" groups sign on early. It’s a sad litany, and even sadder considering a Five Delta Counties representative testified at an August 25th Legislative hearing that agreeing to the necessity of an "alternate conveyance"(aka Periperheral Canal) was a "litmus test" for being allowed to join BDCP.

The (dis)honor roll of BDCP participants includes: Bay Institute, Environmental Defense Fund, Defenders of Wildlife, and Nature Conservancy. In addition, it must be noted that Natural Resource Defense Council’s Barry Nelson has been active in supporting the "Delta Fix" legislation, including testifying on behalf of Jared Huffman’s bill.

But back to greenacres, and when we say green, we mean money. The very able PR Groups pushing new dams and a peripheral canal in California have perfected the "Dustbowl" meme. From Newsweek to BBC, they’ve all suddenly discovered the plight of farmworkers, and marvel at unemployment statistics that actually haven’t budged in decades. They ignore the inconvenient truth, that, as many farmworkers are illegal aliens, they are reluctant or unable to join farmworker unions that could offer them protection from abuses, better access to clean drinking water, and better working conditions in the central valley. By the way, better working conditions encompasses not dropping dead from heat exhaustion, because your employer has made you work, or has not provided shade, in deadly 100+ degree temperatures.

Senator Joe Simitian, Assemblyman Jared Huffman, and all those who are maniacally attempting to push their "Delta Fix" bills through in the waning days of this California legislative session endlessly recite, regarding the Sacramento San Joaquin Delta, that the "status quo is not acceptable." In reality, their legislation does nothing but support more of the same. Those who’ve got, like Sandridge Partners, get.

Water privatization moves forward, and the inequities of California water law, where water supposedly belongs to the people, are ignored to make sure big money interests, whether corporate farms, or developers, prosper. The real family farmers, whether in the San Joaquin Valley, or the rest of the state, are left staring at a world of hurt, where lipservice is paid to Agriculture, and water is sold to the highest bidder.

And the Sacramento San Joaquin Delta? Let’s hope it’s not "sic transit gloria mundi", but if the water privateers, abetted by Senator Simitian and Assemblyman Huffman, and their chorus of greenwashers have their way, the largest estuary on the West Coast will die to ensure California water is sold at the highest price, to the highest bidder, with the proceeds pocketed by "family farms" and developers.

KATHRYN GRAY was genuinely shocked to see how state and federal subsidized water continues to line the pockets of the very, very, very rich. To find out how you can speak out against this, and save the Sacramento San Joaquin Delta, and, while you’re at it, the Pacific Coast Salmon Fishery, which has been closed for two years, please visit www.calsport.org