Yesterday’s front-page headlines reported that six of seven states have agreed to a new framework to cut back on the amount of water they use from the Colorado River. Six is pretty good—
There’s this Kighlinger negotiator, he is a former Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District manager, he knows the score, he sees the writing on the wall, and is trying with all his might to get the Imperial Valley Irrigation District to face reality. That is no small feat when trying to negotiate with the grand pooh-bah of water rights holders.
Kighlinger is among the many that believe the priority system foisted upon the region more than a century ago can no longer be used as a model for how water is allocated. The heart of the matter— if you use 80% of the water, then you should be contributing close to the same 80% back in economic benefits, not at best a measly 5% return on the people’s water.
Alex Cardenas, the president of the board of directors of the Imperial Irrigation District, what he wants you to know is that he represents a group of farmers that hold water rights that go back so far in history that they predate the formation of the universe, they existed before the Big Bang, this isn’t just the before times, this is before the before times, this is all eternity— and they are not going to be pushed around by some uppity federal agency. Farmers in the Imperial Valley are hot under the collar, ready to brawl, won’t be surrendering their senior most status to some junior subordinated water rights holders that they believe are out to do the same thing they have been doing for the last 100 plus years. Water grabbers of the world unite!
Here, let’s listen to Mr. Cardenas explain, “We’re not going to wreck our local economy so that they can continue to grow their urban economy.”
This is how senior water rights holders speak, this is our nation’s Water Nobility, another way of saying this is that some farmers have come to believe that the water they use comes with zero strings attached, and not you and not nobody may ever question how they use the nation’s resources.
From my fictional perspective I feel my script towing reality’s line. I have been drawing up a screenplay and Mr. Cardenas not only plays the part I’ve imagined but he makes my work easy, I don’t even have to write the dialogue, his quotes write the script for me.
I’m still predicting the Bureau of Reclamation will keep its head low until after the President gives the State of the Union speech. In the next few weeks, I forecast the conflict to escalate, and by grow more tense I mean the stuff is going to hit the fan.
I’ll leave you with the wit and wisdom of this water professional and come on now let’s hear it for this brave soul who has had the brass to tell the truth and call out the madness about how they want to use all the water and return almost nothing to the economy in return. As this cool cat Kighlinger said— that’s a fucking disaster— that just can’t be our reality—
Water like whiskey even after a century is still worth fighting over—
Pack your bags, bring your toothbrush, let’s get away from it all, if only we could. First order of business was to get the epoxy coating for the carport drop shipped from the East Coast via Michigan, don’t ask it’s a complicated supply chain thing.
Reviewing local weather forecasts and they tell of a high-pressure system off the California coast that is shunting storms north, that we are going to remain dry at least until the middle of the month, that it will hit 80 degrees later this week, and that there is concern about potential for wildfire.
A friend living in the Gold Country east of Sacramento in Amador City, the smallest incorporated town in California has been hit with homeowner insurance sticker shock. The policy jumped from $2800 per year to $6000. After some changes to his deductibles, he was able to get the premium reduced to $4800 and he feels lucky. This is playing out all across California’s urban wildland interface, and it is the runaway costs of the climate emergency socking citizens right where it counts─ in the wallet.
Too young to be a player in the Summer of Love, 1967’s perfect year for hippies, Haight-Ashbury’s gathering of the tribe, the counter culture that was going to change things traded all of those drug induced happenings for all these frightful challenges barreling down on us like an overfilled clown car. You know the bit where the tiny car parks center ring and out come this impossible to imagine number of clowns one after the other, clowns like drought, wildfire, earthquake, tsunami, hurricane, tornado, and heatwave. We are fending off sea level rise, wildfire smoke, volcanic eruptions and empty water reservoirs. Someone somewhere is keeping an eye out for undiscovered asteroids or comets potentially on a collision course, this is the human condition, modern life isn’t for the weak or the easily worried.
All the false prophets (profits) of yesteryear had assured us to follow along while we engaged in rampant outsourcing (offshoring─ a much less offensive term), financialization, monopolization, deregulation, and just-in-time logistics. Turns out our competitors took out a can of whoop-ass over there so that they could make us miserable over here. I smelled a rat as soon as the fat cats unbolted the Schwinn Bicycle Factory and sent it lock, stock and barrel to China. Our leaders have been too sheepish, stupid and stubborn. That famous sucking sound turns out to be us, we didn’t need anyone else providing us with sound effects, this was an unforced error.
I did a deep dive into a story about the foreign ownership of America’s farmland. What could go wrong? Water for agriculture is a big deal in a decades long drought, and you can’t really get to the core dysfunctionality of how we squander our water without giving your brain over to the geostrategic blunder being made by policymakers that have surrendered control of our food production system. When the Can-Tan-Con-Man slapped tariffs on China, and in retaliation they responded by canceling purchase of soybeans, and then Washington replaced the lost revenue by providing subsidies to the farmers, and that it turns out many billions of those dollars ended up going to multinationals located in other countries to compensate for the losses they took on farms they owned in America. Hard to flowchart all that losing, screwing and double dealing but friends there you have it, we are up to our elbows in one gargantuan mobbed up racket.
Our current members of the Supreme Court are not oriented by way of ideological fanaticism to care one whit about any of the many ways we are self-destructing. Let’s just say for the fucking fun of it that almost anyone can buy American farmland, biggest foreign owners are Canada, China and even Saudi Arabia’s got their hands in America’s dirt. It’s plain as lavender mascara that we’ve been sucked into a sinkhole of stupid. All this nonsense about the invisible hand of the free market is a bunch of neoliberal doublespeak. We already pay farmers to grow or not grow specific crops, there are subsidies for dairy, corn, soy, and cotton. The market is anything but free.
Goobering up our food system took a disastrous turn in the late 50’s when it was determined what we wanted to do was maximize the number of calories we cultivated. Farms and ranches were incentivized to grow commodity crops, the crops then blighted our population with heart disease and diabetes, and as these commodity producers have been in control for decades, they have no intention of surrendering their control over our food chain or their gravy train and there will be hell to pay if anyone dare try.
Iowa is the poster child for what is widely understood to be the ethanoyl disaster. Decades ago, we decided to make fuel from corn. Never mind that it takes more energy to make ethanoyl than the energy you can get out of this biofuel, but subsidized corn growing was good for Iowa farmers and that was good enough, pretty much an open and shut case of shut your mouth. But you be right to wonder if we’ve been getting our money’s worth for helping Iowa, appears we’re not even close to a fair exchange. Iowans are in the grip of an ultra-sharp swerve to the right of the political spectrum, Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst voted for Biden the day the vote was certified but not before making the most tepid remarks over the fiasco we know as the January 6th insurrection. Nobody is for defunding the police, but I am tempted to want to defund ethanoyl price supports that go to Iowa because patriotism ain’t getting its money’s worth. Trust me Iowa gets more back from Washington than it sends, and then it bites the hand that feeds it, that my friends makes it right to reconsider the fact we aren’t getting much back for all we give. I’m not into retribution but I’m also not into stupid. Time has come to get all those cotton-picking complainers to fulsomely embrace the right side of history, patriotism and democracy or suffer the loss of all this largess we’ve been squandering upon the ingrates.
There is clarity, spiritual liberation, and soul healing in understanding how perplexing the conundrum that is the interplay between crop and water subsidies. Top four subsidized commodity crops that the Department of Agriculture supports are corn, soy, wheat and rice. There are more but these are the four biggest crops. Then, over at the Department of the Interior, this is where the Bureau of Reclamation is located, and it is here that a good many water subsidies are handed out in one of the most irrational welfare programs and this quasi-legal water grabbing goes on right under the taxpayers’ noses. This isn’t water for the poor or the weak, these are for the powerful and connected. Given the ongoing megadrought in the American West there is every reason to evaluate and reimagine what crops we ought to grow where and if and how much water we are going to use.
You can pound the table, scream as loud as Pavarotti, stink and skunk it up, but you and nobody are going to bring this scrambled pile of misbegotten policy to heel. Like a thousand and one other things under the sun and on this continent, we have a lost our legislative spine to react to current realities and then make new policy.
It’s going to require a massive, colossal unimaginably enormous climatic convulsion before anything is going to shake up this over-intitled elite. And don’t you know that’s where we are and what the forces of nature are doing to the entrenched members of what we call the water nobility. Every politician knows to duck and cover when the topic of what to do about the water shortages out here in the American West come up. The powers that be clam up, get tight lipped and literally lose the power to speak when questioned about this century old fiasco. The plain and simple of the thing is that change is coming, and it arrived about two decades ago disguised as the mother of all droughts and until about now there was still time to do something about the thing. Time’s up and the bill has come due.
Don’t Look Down could be 2022’s next hit film. And this time it isn’t some celestial object colliding with the world it is the stubborn entrenched special interests threatening the collapse of almost half our nations farmland. How this movie ends is the comedy I’m trying to write.
In New Mexico ancient human footprints have been discovered at White Sands National Park. Scientists have identified adolescent sized prints to 23,000 years before present. Our first people moved along the coastline netting fish for food while drifting south by sea craft. Insight into this migration is likely rendered impenetrable by the expanding ice sheet of 26,000 years ago that scrubbed away evidence of our first ancestors’ migration patterns.
Second route of the ancients was taken by traveling inland. Prior to the last glacial maximum, I’m speculating here, was likely about 30,000 years before present. This was a warmer and wetter American West. Massive lakes some hundreds of miles in length in Nevada, Utah and New Mexico created habitat for safe travel along the shore in floating vessels while hunting and gathering.
The Winnemucca Rock Art near Nevada’s Pyramid Lake dates back to 14,800 years before present. This is the earliest example of human created artistic behavior in North America. Much further north and dating back 23,000 years before present in the Yukon’s Bluefish Caves there is evidence of the first people having settled in this region of North America.
Mexico’s Chiquihuite Cave hints at human activity dating back 30,000 years before present.
Sixty miles southeast of Albuquerque there is dry lake bed and then further south is White Sands National Park. We haven’t any evidence of whether these first people arrived from the north or the south. What we do know is that it was warmer and wetter that the lakes were a source of fresh water and food. The Pueblo People are the descendants of these first immigrants.
Most intriguing is that these first people may have arrived, but it would be tens of thousands of years before they transitioned from hunter-gatherer’s and built permanent settlements.
Early man began to experiment with cultivating plants, corn or maize is the most well-known crop, but there was also potato, squash, beans, and sunflower.
The people named the Anasazi suddenly vanished from this region about 800 years before present. These first people had developed the pueblo and their abandoning the dwellings was thought to be the result of climate change and drought. New theories speculate that there is evidence of tension between tribes and potential of mass killings, enslavement, and cannibalism. The lack of water may have set in motion a more predatory behavior between the various groups settled in this region.
Perching as they did on the cliffs appears to be designed as a fortress structure. The cliff dwellings were not built to withstand water scarcity. After the end of the last ice age, while the climate shifted from wetter to drier conditions no longer favored a people living in this region. The vast system of freshwater lakes begin evaporating and are gone in just a few thousand years.
A wave of immigrants then swept across the continent introducing Old World technology to a New World. Coal was burned to power the steam engine, then oil was refined to power the piston engine. There were sewers and water wells. By 1895 hydroelectric power stations began making electricity available to the masses.
A straight line connects the carbon based energy system of the Industrial Revolution to the climate emergency.
Traveling across the Navajo Nation in Northern Arizona and New Mexico the evidence of our first people is scattered across a vast landscape. Genetic markers identify the Korean peninsula as the origin of these people. Navajo prefer the name Diné to identify the people of their nation.
The ancestors of the Diné have been in North America for tens of thousands of years. The new human inhabitants evolved with a climate that grew warmer and drier, at this same time period animals such as camel and mastodon vanished into extinction.
These first people began to fabricate cliff dwellings and whole villages, fields were cultivated and farmed diverting water from the adjacent rivers. The Diné describe water as a living spirit, that the rivers, lakes, sun and earth are key to unlocking the miracle of life.
As the Department of the Interior rolls out the non-carbon based renewable energy system for this new century Biden’s Build Back Better plans is to enlist the wisdom of our indigenous people in our effort to reimagine our economy.
The Industrial Revolution was powered by and is still dominated by use of fossil fuels. We’ve altered our climate and it is now clear that mankind has unleashed all manner of trouble upon itself. It is the culture of our first people who have lived here longer than any other people, that it is the Diné who have sought out a means of being here in harmony with the earth. For our world to survive we would be wise to enlist the talents of all our tribes, each part of our many people can contribute to this transformational journey.
Embracing a multicultural path to fixing our energy system is only one of many existential challenges confronting the American West. Wildfire, heatwaves, and drought are the tip of the spear to the changes bearing down upon this region.
Most urgent is the persistent loss of water flowing into the Colorado River. Constructing both the Glen Canyon and Hoover Dam’s occurred during an era that was unusually wetter than at present.
Appointed by Bill Clinton former Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation Daniel P Beard in 2015 concluded that the time had come to remove the Glen Canyon Dam. What prevents this right decision from being taken? A set of interlocking stakeholders that receive subsidized water. The unfettered flow of the Colorado River water to western landholders is about to be shattered.
Beard dubbed this group of lucky water rights holders the water nobility. The senior most water rights holders have been allotted subsidized water worth thousands and thousands of dollars that they would then use to grow hay crops worth hundreds and hundreds of dollars.
Water law is complicated but the problem it has created is not. Too much water is being wasted growing too many crops unsuited to this region’s climate. Members of the Water Nobility have outsized wealth created by receiving an irrationally bestowed entitlement. This is the people’s water, it is for all of us, not just the lucky few. But the current stakeholders will fight to keep what they’ve mistakenly come to believe is their water.
What we’ll see play out over the next years are negotiations between Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, and our international neighbor to the south Mexico. Every stakeholder is going to demand more, and all will come away with less, some will lose access altogether.
The Bureau of Reclamation and Department of Agriculture will attempt to bring an end to subsidizing crops grown with subsidized water. The firestorm these changes setoff are going to be monumental. But the climate emergency is now upon us and with its arrival the American West finds itself struggling to divide up less and less to the point where there is no more water to divide up.
Knowing full well that they will fight to the last drop, surrendering nothing, arguing over everything, never agreeing to anything, holding out as the American West is brought to the brink. This is the tragedy of the commons playing out before our very eyes. The pending negotiations over how to share what water remains in the Colorado River does not yet dominate the headlines, but this crisis even if it rains this next season is going to pit state against state all too soon.
Postscript… I’m preparing a new plot to a comedy. Some pieces of the water crisis will be folded into this struggle. I see this as Little Big Man and Dr. Strangelove doing battle with the Monkey Wrench Gang. I remind myself while trying to plot this story that Hayduke and Mandrake are both still very much alive!