The Sucker and the Citizen

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Colorado River Blue Sucker.

One evening last week when I was alone and contemplating more than 20 years of environmental battles in the heart of agribusiness, how we exhausted our minds, hearts, finances and tolerance for each other’s belligerent personalities, I closed my eyes and took a breath. What should swim into my mind by complete surprise but a sucker fish, one of that lowly tribe of bottom feeders that inhabit all our rivers and lakes. Even savage 12-year-old, fish-killing boys, capable of spending whole days studying a reach of creek or a part of a lake seeking trout, rarely see the suckers. The sucker’s speed, preference for crevices between rocks, and disinterest in most trout flies and bass lures keep them safe most of the time from little boys who hate them because they are not trout. It’s true that occasionally on our beloved ‘Net, we see some smiling oaf holding in his arms an immense great-grandpa100 of a sucker, 50 years old if he’s a day, with that look of utter innocence on its face that all suckers have whatever their age, and who’s spent his whole long life inoffensively cruising the bottom of the river until luck would have it …

My sucker would not leave until I identified him. I found he was the spitting image of a Colorado River Blue Sucker, a variety I had never seen in the flesh. I was not glad to see that it is very endangered, and facing extinction, a fate that has befallen several other sucker species in that river. As a symbol of hope, healing and renewal, the sucker lacks a little something, like the lives of ordinary American citizens these days.

Wouldn’t you know it, a reporter wouldn’t get some grand metaphorical, utopian vision transcending this veil of vicissitudes. I get a simile of them.

Like the Colorado River Blue Sucker, we ordinary Americans with steady voting records, stable addresses, and some sort of job and income, are subject to increasing levels of political and economic manipulation. And as much as I adore the myth of the yeoman farmer, corporate agribusiness dominates American farming and it is making a prolonged Western drought worse than it might be for the Colorado River. There was also the Sunbelt, that great promise of a new beginning within our land of new beginnings, that ended up with carpenters from Buffalo and Cleveland building homes for plumbers from Pittsburg and dry-wall hangers from Toledo.

Among the many similarities the Blue Sucker and I share is the issue of shrinking space in which to live. The Sucker’s problem is the shrinking of the river, limiting both its movement and the number of good habitats within the river. My mobility and ability to find pleasant surroundings is limited by the spread of diseases and by the disappearance of money.

The Colorado Plateau Drought is part of the Sucker’s problem; but increasing water extraction by expanding agriculture and municipal development is the worse problem. Expanding agricultural and municipal development exacerbates global warming, gave me COPD and I can’t see the mountains on either side of the California Central Valley where I grew up except for short periods after rain.

But the principal restraint on my movement and quality of life is lack of money. In the same way the Sucker’s habitat is being reduced by growing extraction of water by huge, powerful entities, the wealth around me is being siphoned out of my communities and concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, impoverishing the neighborhoods, towns, counties, and state where I live.

Las Vegas demands more water every year from the Colorado River in the same way the various casinos of capitalism – from stocks and bonds markets and labor arbitrage to booms and busts in natural resources and agriculture, retail, and housing investment — keeps creating larger, more powerful, fewer financial corporations extracting more of the wealth from my world.

My political duties and rights are about as effective against this financial monopoly capitalism as the Sucker’s ability to swim fast is against the shrinking of the river.

But, although our situations have great similarities, there are important differences between an American citizen and a fish. For example, the Colorado River Blue Sucker is listed as an endangered species. The American citizen is not. Several federal and state natural resource agencies are charged with defending endangered species across the board on absolutely each and every occasion when that defense does not in any way interfere with any economic activity, however idiotic it may be.

Witness the Department of Interior’s recent failure to discipline the Colorado River’s lower basin states to take less water, thus avoiding the danger of stopping the electricity generators in Glen Canyon and Hoover Dam. To secure western senators’ votes for the Inflation Reduction Act, The Biden administration gave these states a $4 billion bribe instead of mandatory water cuts. Municipalities and agribusiness will be properly rewarded for appearing to temporarily reduce their impacts on the river. And to add frosting, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Co. came Out West a week later to bestow an additional $310 million to combat “megadrought.” The administration evidently intends to forestall folks from raising the Stars and Bars over the entire Southwest before the midterms.

The federal government frequently has us cowboys out West choking on our chaw.

But, it is settled scientific doctrine that an American citizen is not a Sucker. It is a question of variables. The Colorado River Blue Sucker has limited variables, which makes it much more amenable to scientific investigation than human beings are. The Sucker is a fish and is wired to be no more than a fish with limited choices in life. It has evolved to live best in certain reaches of the Colorado River. Unfortunately for the Sucker, all this study may not help it avoid “extirpation” (the fancy word the US Fish and Wildlife Service uses for total wipeout of a species.) When the “X-word” is used, as it is in cases like the Delta Smelt and the San Joaquin Kit Fox, the end is nigh.

But a human being is a prodigy of variables, and because it is an American human being, a prodigy of contending creeds representing many collections of variables that reside in the human heart.

A random sample of American creeds, some living, some extirpated, would include: Wegun Tah (Pequot); Don’t Tread on Me; No Taxation without Representation; Tippecanoe and Tyler Too; 54-40 or Fight! Hoka Hey!(Lakota) Remember the Alamo; Deo Vindici (Confederate States of America); Remember the Maine; One Big Union; Geronimo; Viva La Raza; Make the World Safe for Democracy; We Shall Overcome; Beatitudes; The Best Defense: Preventative War; Faz Favor de Trabalhar Mais Depressa; You Will Not Replace Us; El Pueblo Unido No Sera’ Vencido; Stop the War on Women; My Flag, My Country. Your Approval is not Required; Sal Si Puedes; Si Se Puede; It All Hangs Together; Be There or Be Square; Black Lives Matter; Pride is about Love; …Carry On!

To conclude, just one example of the difference between the Citizen and the Sucker from local Colorado River history: American citizens continue to support spending of billions of dollars of public funds “to fix the Salton Sea.” Or at least if they disapprove, they aren’t able to stop this particular racket.

The Sea was formed a century ago when a canal built to siphon water out of the Colorado River for irrigation and municipal expansion in California broke and fresh water flowed out of it for two years, filling a vast depression in the desert in the southeast corner of the state.

Southern Californians flocked to the Sea in its early years. But, after decades of resort development and real estate speculation, its only remaining source of water, agricultural runoff, killed all the fish and the real estate value.

Today, the Salton Sea is a shrinking sump of agricultural waste-water pollution and no Blue Sucker would be caught dead in it.

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: