Bet Against California … You Can’t Go Wrong

Yesterday I found myself standing in rich, dense grass as high as the tops of my rubber boots in the middle of a cow pasture. I got so engrossed in staring at the snow on the tops of the mountains in Yosemite and the whole visible Sierra range that my partner asked if I was OK. There was a steady breeze as soft as a horse’s sigh blowing across what’s left of the entire grasslands in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley of California, smelling of running creeks, sweet grass and cows.

It rained last week. It’s due to rain next week. The ranchers won’t need to move the cows out of the Valley up into the Sierra for some time. Yet, when summer comes, the sun will suck all the moisture and color out of this grass and the area where I am standing and the hills east of it will turn khaki.

The national herd size hasn’t been so low in 60 years; beef prices are at historic highs; and the vast majority of these native grassland pastures are not irrigated. Looking west to the Valley floor, we could see huge almond orchards in the distance and the rooftops of mega-dairies. Both commodities, the top two in this region, are in serious economic trouble and, dragged down by the collapse of the speculative real estate boom, farmland prices are beginning to fall.

Like rainfall in the Valley, the economic situation for its commodities is normal – it constantly changes, is unpredictable, some will prosper, some won’t in this desert where the owners of irrigated farmland call native pasture “junk land.” And for some reason this year a campaign is beginning against cattle leases in the high country based on the claim that cows stand in mountain creeks and leave “meadow muffins” (as we used to call them) in the pristine Sierra, where to hike these days you need about a thousand dollars of gear to feel socially acceptable and John Muir would be about as welcome in the lodge as Jesus Christ would be in the board room.

From the very privileged position of being flat on my back after tripping over a badger hole in the thick, tall grass, the Sierra looming like a white cloud in the distance, California looked as feckless as I felt. By California, I mean “official” California, which is composed of finance, insurance, real estate and agricultural interests, local and state governments, and the vast collection of environmental grant whores in and out of our corporate-dominated public and private research universities and non-profit corporations.

It has reached a point where the smart investment in California is a credit default swap against its municipal bonds. A great deal of the profit that residential and agricultural development can wring out of a place has been taken, the situation is not “renewable,” so the smart money considers leaving it to the Mexicans, whose country the smart money plundered into a narco-state some time ago.

The state committed its entire economy to residential growth; finance, insurance and real estate (FIRE) lobbyists control government from the local land-use authorities (cities and counties), state government and the congressional delegation. Off they thunder over the cliff, carrying the population with them, their bosses in the backrooms buying insurance on each chariot’s fall. One doesn’t have to be an authority on American plutocracy to see that California is beginning to be treated by the plutocrats as a large, sick Third World nation that has already been looted and is now a candidate for the IMF and the World Bank. It ranks near the top for unemployment, at the top for foreclosures, its bonds are rated as junk, and it ranks 49th in average educational attainment. Where I live in the San Joaquin Valley, if you perform the necessary doubling to get the actual unemployment rate from the official rate, there is 50 percent unemployment, with outlying settlements of farm workers at nearly 100 percent.

Where the fecklessness of bigshots is most obvious is in water politics. Water is really a very simple story. The amount of water provided by Nature varies. The demand for water in California constantly rises. It is a “ratchet effect,” following J.K. Galbraith on agricultural economics. The demand constantly ratchets upward and tighter; supply continues to vary according to the fiscally undisciplined whims of Great Mother.  One can imagine that after the next light rainfall year, duly appointed representatives of FIRE equipped with bullwhips will be dispatched to lash the Delta for its meager offering, Or, equally and more appropriately to the story of the Madness of Xerxes at the Hellespont, the bullwhippers will be dispatched to lash the Delta when it floods, levees break and the water supply and quality for 24 million people is thrown into jeopardy. But this is the madness of empires, as surely California has been, sucking water and energy from all the western states and as far north as Washington, Alberta and Alaska.

Homo californiensis has had a solution to the whims of Nature. His finest achievement is the Friant Dam on the San Joaquin River, a 330-mile riverbed with a 60-mile dry reach in the middle of it because the dam diverts more than 90 per cent of its water into the Friant-Kern and the Madera canals. This 60-year-old triumph of science, technology, construction, aggregate and agribusiness politics has stood as such a magnificent model for the salvation of farmers who over-drafted their groundwater, employing public funds for private gain, that the state has suggested to its citizens that this November they vote for an $11.4-billion bond to do essentially the same thing with the San Joaquin Delta. The Delta is the largest estuary on the western shore of the Pacific Ocean. Homo californiensis proposes that we citizens vote to build a Friant-Kern-like canal near where its two rivers meet to form it, thus turning the richest ecological area by far in the state into a stagnant slough, killing any chance for recovery of endangered salmon species along with other fish species in danger of extinction even without this peripheral canal due to over-pumping from the Delta for the drinking water for 24 million people and much farmland beside.

According to Homo californiensis, any drop of fresh water that reaches the ocean has been stolen from FIRE and agribusiness by the satanic smolts of the environmental movement in and out of resource agencies that cannot be bribed into silence.

Where the madness ends is a problem for prophets and historians. However, some are of the view that the candidacy of former Rep. Richard Pombo, Crooked Cowboy-Tracy,  to replace retiring Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, may represent a giant step to the end. Pombo, as some my recall, was chair of the then-named House Resources Committee, where he waged continual war on the Endangered Species Act, while representing  a district that included the lower portion of the San Joaquin Delta and while representing Pombo Real Estate Farms, his family’s business. Without changing his residence from the seat of the family real estate empire, Pombo is running in a district that includes the eastern cattle and farmland regions of three Valley counties and several counties in the Sierra. This district contains the headwaters of four major California rivers: the San Joaquin, Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus, which supply six major irrigation districts north of the San Joaquin River and 28 water districts south of it.

Pombo lost his seat in 2006 when former Rep. Pete McCloskey, R-Woodside, in his early 80’s, abandoned his retirement on an orange ranch in the Sacramento County, rented an apartment in Pombo’s district, and kicked the Crooked Cowboy’s ass to badly in the Republican primary that a Democratic nonentity beat Pombo in the general.

The 19th CD is basically insane. A state Assembly district that includes its northern portion has an open seat for which five Republicans and no Democrats are running, each trying to position himself or herself to the right of Jefferson Davis (the South wins in Civil War reenactments in the 19th CD).

It is entirely possible that Pombo’s flaks, with the help of FIRE-lobby money from Washington, can find exactly the right message (and I do mean “right”) to drive the lunatics to the polls and drive sane citizens away from them in June.

He who wins the Republican primary in the 19th CD, owns the enchilada. We figure that for starters, all entrances to Yosemite National Park will feature billboards announcing “Pombo Yosemite Estates Ranch.” If things progress according the cherished plans of the Crooked Cowboy and of all his sponsors, who believe that water is a commodity that is most rationally distributed according to a non-regulated free market, we expect to see new dams on those four rivers, each with a “Lake Pombo” behind it, drying up the beds of the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced, like the San Joaquin, to the point that absolutely no water south of the Delta reaches the Delta. Next, once proper political conditions prevail, legislation would pass that would somehow “privatize” the water in all the Lake Pombos. At this point, if not before, we would strongly recommend that all gated communities between Stockton and Riverside conside r making their own deals with the Pombo family for the acre feet of water they require.

In California today, appeals to reason are pointless. There are two kinds of people here now: those scared of losing the next paycheck; and those in on one of the collapsing political rackets. The best judicial water decisions in the state have come out of Judge Oliver Wanger’s court in Fresno, but Wanger is on a sustained public speaking tour, apologizing for his decisions in the hope of getting an invitation to a cocktail party again. State-court decisions, based on the California Environmental Quality Act, have had some force, as has had state law in federal cases, for example the San Joaquin River case. This case, that meandered through the courts for more than 20 years, petitioners claiming that salmon had the right to swim in the Valley part of the river again, was ultimately decided by federal Judge Lawrence Karlton. In deciding that the federal Bureau of Reclamation and the Friant Water Users Authority really had no right under state law to destroy salmon spawning habitat, Karlton said two things. He said he was a young man when the suit started and that he would not retire before it was settled. He also said neither the Bureau, the farmers nor the petitioners – Natural Resources Defense Council, et al.  – would be happy if he ruled on law alone, so they must settle. They did, with congressional funds to begin the restoration of the destroyed river. If elected, Pombo, the Crooked Cowboy, will do everything within his power to destroy that settlement as  hedid everything in his power to stop funding for any fixes on the Delta when he was chair of House Resources.

The US Supreme Court decision this year in the Citizens United case will soon work its way into state-court elections, allowing unlimited corporate contributions that will have a negative effect on California environmental law court decisions. The majority decision was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy of Sacramento. Some would perceive it as a payoff to California finance, insurance and real estate interests.

However, homo californiensis cannot change the weather any better than King Oedipus could. The San Luis – Delta Mendota water Authority uses as its slogan the first line of the first poem of the ancient Greek athlete-loving poet, Pindar: “The noblest of the elements is water.” Aside from the little chemical mistake, not made by Pindar, that water is a compound and not an element, the shrewd agribusiness water thieves of the west side of the San Joaquin Valley did not complete Pindar’s clause, “while gold, like fire flaming at night, gleams more brightly than all other lordly wealth …”

Fifty years ago, Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown was coursing up and down California, preambling every one of his ebullient speeches with the words, “In this great big number one state of ours,” I was passing under my hometown’s sacred arch every day going to and from high school. “Water Wealth Contentment Health,” it said, pre-neon in light bulbs. On the street, the most obvious thing was that once you passed under that arch and across the tracks going west, you entered the zone of Labor – in fields, packing houses and canneries. Where I went to school the coaches of winter were the labor contractors of summer. No pick, no play.

There are four things you never talk about in company here, where all the resources and their uses collide: water, money, education and labor. Our cowardly local elites are barely even able to figure out the logic of their own greed on the best of days, yet they represent the rest of us, year in, year out. They babble on and are the darlings of the fund-granting corporate foundations. Around here if you can scratch and brush your teeth at the same time, you too can be a bigshot. The plutocrats love acts of manual dexterity.

Bet against California. You cannot go wrong.

BILL HATCH lives in Merced, CA. He can be reached at



Bill Hatch lives in the Central Valley in California. He is a member of the Revolutionary Poets Brigade of San Francisco. He can be reached at: