Water, Extinction and Power Politics in California

At the end of June and an 18-month campaign, the Spontaneous Hun, our governor, and other legislative lackeys of the finance, insurance and real estate interests, announced they will now try to rally enough votes to remove the $11-billion water bond from the November ballot. This after heroic efforts of bribery and corruption to get the proposition on the ballot last year. But that was then – “the third year of the drought” – and this is now, with 150 per cent of normal snowpack melting in the Sierra.

According to their polling, the public is not yet sufficiently well “educated” about for this bond. First, it would add $11 billion to an already crushing debt of more than $20 billion, caused by a series of bond measures over the years that did not jeopardize the real estate market with any nasty tax increases. Second, the bond would have been just a down payment on a peripheral canal on the Delta, which empties into the San Francisco Bay. Although some of the finest propagandists in America tried to rebrand the peripheral canal (defeated by state voters in 1982) as a “conveyance,” people have apparently realized it is a colossal boondoggle that would ruin the ecology of the San Joaquin Delta by drawing a very great amount of the fresh water provided by the Sacramento and American rivers at the top of the Delta into a canal running along the periphery of the Delta, reducing the water below to a brackish slough.

The water quality – salt and municipal sewage – worse than the present quality of Delta water, would finish the job of “extirpation” of a number of fish species, from salmon to smelt. “Extirpation,” in resource-agency jargon, is what causes extinction, a very bad word and terrible for the public image of the resource agencies that connive in policies that extirpate. Third, life for the California millions is generally fretful and not improving. It has the third highest unemployment rate and second highest foreclosure rate in the nation. California, largest state in the nation, dwarfs its competitors (Michigan, Nevada and Rhode Island)  in actual numbers in the National Misery Sweepstakes. Fourth, call it the “Chinatown Syndrome” or whatever you want to call it, Californians don’t trust any institution they don’t personally control when it comes to water. In Boston, all politics may appear to be local; in California, all water is local.

So, we cheered state Sen. Lois Wolk, the greatest, most articulate opponent of the bond in the Legislature when she announced her opposition to postponing the bond. It is “not going to get better with age. It’s not fine wine – it’s just pork,” she said. As late as last week, a bill was rushing through the Legislature to remove the most obvious pork from the bill, parts that permitted private special interests to directly benefit from bond funding.

We cheered the public giving the hydraulic brotherhood’s pollsters such “negative” feedback that the finance, insurance and real estate interests that own the Legislature ordered their lackeys to reverse direction. Perhaps Wolk and a few others will block their efforts, which require a two-thirds vote, and the public will get a chance to send the $11-billion water bond up a creek without a paddle to a distant place where the sun never shines.

For nearly two years, the California public has been submitted to a fear campaign suitable for herding rodents, managed by Burson-Marsteller in the pay of the most special of special interests in our corrupt, indebted, failing state. Every conceivable horror was trotted out in favor of the peripheral canal and the Sacramento and Stockton developers and construction companies that would build it: crumbling Delta levees would leave 23 million without fresh water; America would die of scurvy for lack of west side lettuce; humanity had lost its values preferring the salvation of some fish species over the starvation of up to 80,000 workers on the west side (psssst – the total population of the west side is nowhere near 80,000 and west side agriculture is the most highly mechanized agriculture on the face of the earth); there would be a huge drop in agricultural productivity (Fresno County reported a 4.5-percent drop – not much).

Meanwhile, on the mundane level, Sen. Wolk was actually able to get the Legislature to approve the necessary millions to continue to repair and maintain the Delta levees. And despite or because of the onslaught of lies about water, along with Great Depression level unemployment and foreclosures, Californians would appear to have erected a wall of common sense between themselves and the flakmeisters who control so much of the politics of the nation. The water bond, touted as a cornerstone of the triumphant statewide campaigns of two Republican mavens of high-tech capitalism, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorini, has sunk into the ground, reducing their campaigns to nutrients for other roots.

At the end of June we found a quote in the Fresno Bee that encapsulated the philosophy and political economics of west side agribusiness:

“We had to drill a new well, and we put in a new irrigation system, and it cost us $1 million,” said Bret Ferguson, a Huron-area grower. “We had to do something. We were in survival mode.”

I drove out to the Westlands Water District on Memorial Day.. I drove over from Highway 99 in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley, where farmhouses are plentiful between every crossroad, and orchards and dairies still display their origins as family farms, irrigated by water deriving from local rivers. Even in this relatively stable agricultural zone, there were too many vacant houses, victims of foreclosure, boarded up canvases for gang tags.

There is no billboard announcing that you are entering Westlands Water District but things change once you are there. There are fewer farmhouses, the land is mostly in row crops, the fields are huge — they disappear into the hills on the west and into shimmering mirages at the end of the roads you’re driving. It had rained the previous week, so the Sierra Nevada was still just visible in the east, its snow cap, extremely large for Memorial Day weekend, floated like a serious cloud. The farther into the Westlands you drive, the emptier it feels. The sky grows and you shrink.

There were very few people working in the fields. I saw only one crew of more than a half dozen people in about 80 miles of driving. Most of the crews consisted of two or three men with shovels or hoes off in the distance, half-dissolved in the mirage that surrounds you wherever you go on the west side.

I passed by several settlements and small towns, reminded again of the utter wretchedness of farmworkers’ lives, particularly in this area. Although there were some fairly decent government camps, filling up for the season, the typical farmworker housing out there is a row of beaten down shacks partially concealed from the road by haphazardly hung sheets of corrugated steel scrapped from collapsed barns and sheds. Even the federal government agrees that this area contains some of the worst poverty in the nation. Last year, when water was short and Westlands’ growers did not get the amount of supplemental water they believe the government owes them, their propaganda campaign claimed up to 80,000 people were out of work because of the restricted pumping of Delta water. Although it’s hard to imagine 80,000 people even live inside the boundaries of the water district, 80 per cent unemployment is normal at certain times of the year.

The poverty one sees did not start three years ago. It has been there since the beginning of farming on the west side. Nothing ever got better for farm labor on the west side. Every town you pass through has its wretched section and the crossroads settlements have nothing but shacks and an old grocery store. The farther south you travel, the more the Westlands looks like an Indian reservation surrounded by huge fields of row crops farmed by absentees. However, the few farmers who live there live in gated mansions. Together, the contrast recreates the unchanged pattern of the feudal hacienda that lies at the basis of the social and economic structure of Western agribusiness. The Dust Bowl migrants were the aberration in this dismal history. They came, they worked, they struck, the got out of the fields in a generation. The people left behind compose a reserve army of unemployed, disenfranchised, undocumented labor, a profit center for agribusiness in a region of proliferating cancer clusters.

A farmworker rests in the shade under his pickup. A fisherman 400 miles north stands on an abandoned dock watching a tractor crush another fishing boat to matchwood. The two men don’t know each other and their interests are opposed, but they both inhabit the Era of the Grand Kah-Ching. The farmworker gets seasonal work because of fresh water exports from the Delta. The pumping, year after year, in larger and larger quantities as the rhetoric of privatization of public resources drones maniacally through the airwaves, as frequent as chamber of commerce attacks on organized labor, promotes the escalating erosion of species populations, destruction of fisheries and livelihoods. Less fresh water from the Delta destroys livelihoods in the Westlands. Then there are the 23 million people who rely on the Delta for drinking water to consider.

California grew by 20 million between 1950 and 1990 and by another 10 million from then until now. Today more than half of the state’s 40 million people rely for drinking water on the San Joaquin Delta.  California, the nation’s most populous state, is the epicenter of the foreclosure bust as it was of the speculative real estate boom. After 60 years of spectacular growth based on urban real estate, it is no accident that California has adjusted to the Great Recession by holding its breath in anticipation of the next speculative real estate boom.

You see immense structures, not barns but sheds, many without walls, containing some of the largest agricultural equipment made in the world, on display each January at the ag equipment fair in nearby Visalia. It’s advertised as the largest such fair in the United States. Or is it the world? Absolutely everything to do with California agriculture is either the biggest in the nation or in the world.

You have to be careful driving in the Westlands because, like driving in the desert, the visual tedium will cause drowsiness. Within living memory, much of the Westlands was periodically flooded desert, and today wherever a field is left fallow, the inner desert comes to the surface and winks at you. This land is alkali flats, its surface soil full of selenium and other heavy metals that have to be washing into underground drainage culverts before seeds can be planted, and its groundwater is salty. When left fallow, tumbleweed and salt grass immediately appear.

We are shocked and awed this month by the sudden violent destruction caused by  the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. It makes it difficult to see the slow-moving environmental catastrophes all around us, like the Westlands. For that, we need the help of the handful of agribusinessmen, bankers, insurance agents, and their elite water lawyers — people who have always planned ahead for their own advantage. They will tell you whatever story they think will work on you, knowing that you will probably not bother to take a trip down Highway 33, the old west side road east of Interstate 5. The higher-priced the denial, the wider it is broadcast, the more politicians that join the howling chorus, the worse the environmental destruction is. This is an infallible guide.

Denial is pretty. It comes in feature stories in the New York Times complete with photos of firm-jawed, lean men in straw hats staring (thinks the reader) into the future, into destiny. The angle newspaper photographers prefer most is looking up at the West Side Yeoman of the Month from the ground as He handles a hoe, which only a New York reporter would be dumb enough to think He ever uses. The look is the Desert Stare. The Yeoman is looking at his personal mirage and imagining his personal water allotment. Everybody on the west side carries his own personal mirage with him from cradle to grave. Out there, your personal environment is bounded by Okeanos, the mythical sea surrounding the flat surface of the world. Okeanos is also where the West Side Hero Yeoman sends his toxic agricultural runoff.

But, what you feel when you cross the mighty canals conveying Delta water southward (and the meandering San Joaquin River bearing agricultural wastewater north) is that the Westlands Water District is nothing but a 600,000 acre sponge to absorb water from the San Joaquin Delta, the largest, most ecologically threatened estuary on the Pacific Coast. When Westlands is squeezed, it produces toxic wastewater, composed of pesticides, fertilizers, selenium and other heavy metals. Westlands growers still promote the idea of finishing a drainage ditch that would send the toxic waste back to the Delta. The first half of this drain was constructed and it ended in the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge, where the toxic drainage caused an international scandal over the death and deformation of migratory birds protected by international treaty. The Bureau of Reclamation closed the drain but, because there is no way to get the toxic drainage out of the district, the corporations created their own sumps on their own land, what people called “a thousand Kestersons,” and dumped the rest in the various channels of the San Joaquin River nearby. Virtually all the water for the last 80 miles of the river, before it hits the Delta, is ag wastewater. It is an agricultural industrial sewer.

BILL HATCH lives in Merced, CA. He can be reached at wmmhatch@sbcglobal.net.





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