Get Me Water First

California aqueduct. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Occasionally, you come across an article, a book, or a film with exceptional power to capture your imagination, influencing your ideas or life, or, at least, reminding you of a time when you, too, were obsessed by similar concerns and hopes.

This happened to me recently by a film with the magic and tragic title, River’s End.

I watched the film and then I read carefully the transcripts. That immersion brought me back to all I had done in my work at the US Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the US Environmental Protection Agency. I, too, felt I was a river coming to an end.

Something went wrong. What happened to the endless discussions with fellow bureaucrats and industry people, the abuse of science in industry labs and by industry lobbyists, the scholarly memoranda and books I wrote, the broken promises of presidents and senior government officials, and the shameful abdication of our responsibilities to protect the natural world?

I will probably never have a satisfactory answer to this question. But I do have an insight about the natural world. This is a realm of myth and animals and plants and waters and civilization. This has been the cauldron of genesis of all life.

The Greeks made gods of rivers, all being branches of the super god Okeanos, the ocean river that circled goddess Earth, covering east, west, north and south. Okeanos was the son of Ouranos, the Heavens, and Mother Earth, rich in immense waters, boundless fertile land, forests, mountains and beauties that keep us alive and thriving. The Sun god Helios lived near the banks of Okeanos, every day driving his four white horses chariot from east to west, bringing light and life to the world. And every night going home by sailing the Okeanos river in his golden bowl from west to east.

Water wars through River’s End

Water links Greek mythology and River’s End. The Greeks worshipped nature; we simply like to dominate and decimate it. The transcript of River’s End gave me a chance to think of the film story as a Greek tragedy, but, above all, a symposium where a philosopher asks questions – mostly about the waters of California, their origin, use, misuse, and political and ecological effects in an era of climate revolution.

The entire natural world has been up in arms, what with the fires, clearcutting of the forests and the systematic looting and attack by humans dating centuries. It’s slowly losing the war. Water, source of myth, food, agriculture, and life, has become the main weapon of that war.

Those who answered the water questions in the film are, in some way, experts on the political forces behind scenes. The producer of River’s End, Jacob Morrison, explained why he made it:

“In RIVER’S END, we pull back the curtain on California’s complex water system, where moneyed interests are gaming the system. Constant battling over a limited water supply heralds an impending crisis—not just in California, but around the world. A quarter of humanity now faces a looming water crisis. If we can understand California’s challenges, I believe we will better understand those now facing China and Tibet, India and Pakistan, Chile, South Africa, and elsewhere.”

The waters of California

True, California is like a mirror predicting the future of water and land grabbing in America and the rest of the world. But in California, alone, the crisis over water is often a crisis of life and death.

Natural disaster is always hovering over the state. For example, the Silicon Valley in northern California is facing drought and earthquakes because of the draining of the Anderson Reservoir and because the dam and the Anderson Reservoir “sit atop the Calaveras fault.” Emptying the reservoir would “dry up water supplies in the hub of the state’s tech economy.”

Dry riverbed. Courtesy Jacob Morrison.

This incident of confronting near fatal mistakes of the previous generations (building dams and reservoirs on earthquake zones or giving a few powerful farmers the keys to the state’s water), reminds one of the utter chaos and undemocratic and unscientific culture that built California after the massacre of its indigenous people.

Now that science has revealed a few truths about the natural world, taking water away from its origins sparks a different philosophy. It’s not merely whether the fish and the incredible biodiversity of the San Francisco Bay Delta will survive but, also, whether California and America will survive as a democratic society.

Diverting water from the Delta has been catastrophic. Jon Rosenfield, an expert witness in River’s End, explains:

“The Delta is really a microcosm of a lot of other problems. We’ve got six endangered species in the Delta and of course globally we’re in an extinction crisis, but here right in the backyard of San Francisco in the heart of a state that prides itself on being… the center of environmentalism. We have six endangered species in this ecosystem. Delta smelt, longfin smelt, spring run Chinook salmon, winter run Chinook salmon, green sturgeon and migratory rainbow trout, which are called central Valley steelhead. Those six species have very different ecological needs and very different behaviors, and the fact that all of them are on the precipice of disappearing from an ecosystem that they’ve inhabited for millennia really speaks to the damage that we’ve done to this ecosystem.”

The damage has been unfathomable. It’s the equivalent of nuking nature, a concept and fact that challenge even the use of the word describing civilization. Another film analyst, Peter Gleick, adds climate change to this mix of darkness and the conflict over water:

“There’s violent conflict over access to water worldwide… we have the reality of climate change, which is fundamentally a water issue. As humans take more water out of the natural environment, the ecosystems on which we also depend are increasingly suffering. We’re seeing our fisheries die. We’re seeing our rivers dry up. We’re seeing our wetlands disappear and the birds that migrate thousands of miles every year that depend on those ecosystems perish as well.”

Democracy and climate change

Climate change has been intensifying and punishing the misdeeds of humans: greed and callousness toward non-human species. Draught becomes fierce. Politics, however, made certain that the large farmers of the Central Valley remained immune to the forces of nature.

One of those large farmers / companies uses as much water as the City of Los Angeles. The film narrator, DeLanna Studi, Cherokee actor, artist, and passionate environmentalist, described this company, known as the Wonderful Company, this way:

“The Wonderful Company [is] the largest farm in California. The Wonderful Company, which produces almonds, pistachios, clementines and pomegranate juice, typically uses more water each year than all the homes in the entire city of Los Angeles.”

Char Miller, professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College, understands why such undemocratic things take place in a “democracy.” He said:

“When [the former governor of California] Jerry Brown went up onto the mountain top to declare California in the worst drought in a long, long time and asked people to change their behaviors, there was a caveat. Urbanites were supposed to change their behavior, but the central Valley agricultural districts were not, they were voluntary. We were required. And that tells you everything about the power of ag. Because after all, ag uses 80% of all water in California and Nevada and Arizona and every other state, and they’re going to hold that water because the law says they can.”

Corrupt politicians voted these unjust laws lubricated by the money of the land and water lords. To add insult to injury, most of the water that is diverted from nature and wildlife and people goes to growing almonds. This is largely an export crop using gigantic amounts of drinking water.

The taste of almonds

Almond grove, Central Valley, California. Photo: Evaggelos Vallianatos.

DeLanna Studi put the hot and controversial almond question in this light

“California’s top crop is not… fruits or vegetables. It is almonds and it takes a gallon of water to produce a single almond. Over a million acres of almonds are farmed in the central Valley. Each year, almond farms use 35 times more water than the entire city of San Francisco. The majority of these almonds are exported out of the country. In fact, 80% of the world’s almond supply comes from California, but the water to grow the world’s almonds is diverted from the Delta at the expense of native fish and wildlife.”

A water bureaucrat, Bret Baker, showed off the offices of the California water agency to the film narrator and producer. He spoke about the tunnels California politicians are proposing to suck off most of the Delta water for Los Angeles. He made some sense of the complicated corruption behind California’s water:

“So yeah, this is our war room. This is where we have our monthly water agency meetings. We’ve got all kinds of wonderful color maps of the Delta about every which way you could draw it and we have the most recent rendition of the Delta water fix. It might’ve still been called BDCP at that point in time and it looks very familiar to this 1965 rendition of the hypothesized plan for a peripheral canal so you can see not much has changed in their minds and we’re still fighting over some of the same issues that have been fought over and will continue to be fought over for generations lifetimes. The tunnels project has been around in various forms for over half a century. In the 1940s it was the peripheral canal in the past decade it has gone through numerous names and proposals. [Governor Gavin] Newsom single tunnel plan is not half the size of the twin tunnels [of his predecessor Jerry Brown]. A single tunnel would be much larger than one of the two tunnels for many. This distinction just serves to rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic.”

The water Titanic of California

Yes, indeed, California’s water politics resemble the sinking Titanic. I urge you to see this timely, very important, indeed, great film: River’s End. It’s a story for adults. It’s a gripping discussion for all Californians and Americans. It will shake you up, challenging the propaganda and fear-mongering of the agribusiness and political class. Under no circumstances should 80 percent of our drinking water go to agriculture, especially almond farmers. The survival of wildlife and ecosystems is what is likely to save us from our foolish and dangerous giveaways to our agrarian tyrants.

River’s End gives you a synopsis of the dirty politics of doing the bidding of farmers-billionaires who see food and water as commodities, completely divorced from nature and society. These agribusiness men have practically resurrected feudalism.

George Miller, former Congressman from California, hit the nail on the head when he described this class of moneyed men in charge of water and food in California as unadulterated greed. “Get me water first. The hell with the other people.”

River’s End reminds me of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. No matter where large “growers” exist, they destroy society and the natural world. It’s the nature of the moneyed beast.

Hundreds of thousands of impoverished workers (mostly from Mexico and Central America) are the human infrastructure (slaves for rent) of the water tyrants, making their money on the backs of their imported servants and on the very survival or extinction of the natural world.

Time has come for Californians to discover where their water comes from. River’s End sheds light on this and much more, empowering people to demand justice and terminate the water feudalism of the Central Valley, especially that of the giant almond farmers.

Evaggelos Vallianatos, Ph.D., studied history and biology at the University of Illinois; earned his Ph.D. in Greek and European history at the University of Wisconsin; did postdoctoral studies in the history of science at Harvard. He worked on Capitol Hill and the US EPA; taught at several universities and authored several books, including The Antikythera Mechanism: The Story Behind the Genius of the Greek Computer and its Demise.