falling water, failing leaders

Kern River

Bakersfield wants more water. Everyone out west wants more water. Water grabbing is a preternatural feature of this water starved place. Agriculture’s profits are tied to the amount of water they can use. Rainfall is tight, and because of climate change slightly higher temperatures and lower humidity is shrinking our reservoirs and underground aquifers. The American West is drying up, wildfires are one of the symptoms.

Cotton should not be grown here in the American West, cotton needs to be planted where there is sufficient rainfall. That is not California. Privileged Kern County cotton growers refuse to give back one drop in this fight. Between 1995-2020 big agriculture cotton growers in Kern County have received $495,413,000 in cotton crop subsidy payments.

Federal tax dollars incentivize over 1500 Kern County farms to grow a water intense cotton crop that is then exported to markets offshore. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s family grew cotton.

“Water is protected for the use and benefit of all Californians. California’s waters cannot be owned by individuals, groups, businesses, or governmental agencies. But permits, licenses, and registrations give individuals and others the right to beneficially use reasonable amounts of water.” California Water Resources Board.

McCarthy tweets in support of the fossil fuel industry, “Overturn your ban on American oil & gas immediately or come talk to the blue-collar workers in middle America and tell them why you took their jobs away.”

Agriculture uses almost half of all the water in California while contributing less than 3% to the state’s gross domestic product. I’d challenge McCarthy to come tell Californians why Kern County should continue to be allowed to take so much of the state’s water away. Carbon pollution and water scarcity is the reality of an overheating finite world. Facts matter.

Whirling Dervish Dust Devil Spaces

La Paz County, Arizona is on the border with California. This is a glorious piece of the transition zone, part Mojave, part Sonoran Desert, near Quartzite, a mix of emptiness, blue sky-white clouds, a temple to valley, a cathedral of nearby mountains, you’ll be able to hear yourself, you won’t be worried about tax returns, oil changes or life insurance policy renewal rates.

On or around 1970 you would find farmers growing crops destined for people’s kitchen tables. Food crops thrived here. Since it was good bottom ground wells could find water at reasonable depths. For many reasons there were shifts in farming. Food crops were phased out replaced with hay growing operations.   

Cultivation Atop the Aquifer

Behold the miracle of cultivating grass crops. Fewer pieces of equipment, fewer hired hands, harvesting done by machine, weed control by chemicals, bottom line pencils out pretty good. Foreign buyers took an interest in this region, purchased farmland, all the acquisitions were done by the book, under the letter of the law, everything was apparently on the up and up, nobody objected, no concerns were raised.

Farmers born in Salome, Wenden, Pioneer, Vicksburg, the families that had for generations succeeded in working this ground. Then, the new foreign owners sunk deeper wells, pumped more water, grew larger hay crops, ultimately destined to be shipped back to the new owner’s country. Wait one minute.

Smaller farmers were unable to keep up, their access to water threatened, many wells went dry.

Exporting scarce water from La Paz County, Arizona to markets in China, Saudi Arabia and India while putting our domestic farmers out of business because they cannot afford to drill deeper wells has proven to be a regulatory hot potato.

Governor Doug Ducey and his Republican controlled state legislature are loath to respond with some sort of sensible legislation. Cooler heads and calmer minds don’t quite describe Arizona’s politics, but this transcends partisanship, this is a matter of stewardship, of a sovereign people acting to produce the greatest beneficial use of our water for the greatest number of its people.

Voters wouldn’t support another country moving to California and then draining Lake Tahoe. That’s what this corner of La Paz County is, a vast underground aquifer, literally a vast body of subterranean water is being misused in part because it is much less visible, less tangible, less easily graspable. A few thousand rural residents are petitioning their state government to act. Hard working rural citizens, never having ever earned much, still faithful to their country wait to see if the leaders can do the right thing soon enough.

Predictions! First, nothing will happen fast. Second, pumping underground aquifers until they are dry is coming to an end. Third, agriculture will be forced to grow crops that use less water. And fourth, foreign controlled owners will not be allowed to ship crops offshore.

More predictions. All of this will be fought over in our courts, unfathomable monetary penalties will be awarded to owners that can prove there has been harm done to their lives, deeded water rights will be toast, the climate change emergency will dictate outcomes. As for the politics, everyone touching this issue comes out a loser.

Napa County Citizen Activists

At the turn of this new century there remained both salmon and steelhead runs on the Napa River. For the last five million years the migratory fish had worked out returning from the Pacific Ocean up the Napa River to spawn in the creeks and feeder streams. Napa’s public leaders, virtually all Democrats under intense pressure from the wine growers doled out more permits, permits to plant vineyards, build wineries, tasting rooms and event centers. Visitation to the picturesque county soared. Napa Valley has become a premier global tourist destination. Economic pressures were intense. “Business friendly” Democratic leaders approved more water for wine, less water for salmon, and in every instance feeble as it was, they attempted to mitigate the loss of habitat for the fish. Everyone tried.

By a thousand small cuts, some to do with water diversion, some to do with encroachment upon the river banks the famous wine growing industry prevailed over the science and triggered an extinction event. Commercial interests regardless of which party was in power simply overwhelm efforts at conservation. Our politics forbids win-win solutions, the success of the winegrowers forced a regulatory failure upon a legendary species, a prized fish we were by natural law required to protect. Nothing could halt the decline, the worst was inevitable, happening in front of our eyes, one wrongheaded decision after another culminated in destroying the river, draining more and more of the water, providing the lifeblood to the winemakers and the death knell to the salmon.

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