cultivating delta karma

Sam’s Market on banks of Old River

Twenty years ago, I drove back through the Delta to Berkeley. Life was lush here, tempting, I pulled off the county two lane on Fabian Island. Wind was still, air warm, sun was behind Mount Diablo. I parked in a dirt lot to walk the dog up along the banks of Old River. Swallows darting about, the buzz of insects, life in the Delta is set at a low idle. Stockton was thirty miles east, San Francisco sixty-five miles west, Mongolia seemed just an ocean and continent further over the horizon.  

Sam’s Market, the local landmark was open. Fishermen grabbed their bait and tackle here. Ice cold beer was popular, bag of chips, bug spray.

Next building over a tavern was opening, the paintjob exhausted by sun and time. When I looked inside, I could see a room full of indolent men who had finished chores in the surrounding fields. It was quitting time.

Crop duster pilot bought two beers, “I’ll have whatever he’s having.” We were along a defunct meandering waterway, yesteryears San Joaquin River, bellying up to slake our many thirsts. Behind the joint were smaller shacks, cracker boxes. Farmworkers lived behind Sam’s and the tavern, reckoning they toiled in the nearby fields.

A pair of working women had arrived from Tracy ten miles south. Crop duster pilots once off duty swagger as dare devils all do. Working girls and duster dudes seem to fetch glances and seem familiar, each are persons of interest to the other.

Dike Road along Old River

Small talk next to a field planted with 100 acres of tomatoes needs some streamlining. Mister Fancy Pants showman-juggler could go along or be asked to move along. Thinking it best to coax conversation I nudged my airman, might get the flyer to tell me a piece of aeronautical truth.

Nonchalance is pilot poker face. By now I’m putting two and two together. I try buying my barstool Romeo dusting dare devil a round, but he wouldn’t have anything to do with my generosity, bought the next round.

Jukebox was shutoff. Entertainment would commence soon, what did I know, we are outside city limits, and the clientele and tavern were dead set on enjoying the coming exotic attraction. As unlikely as this worn-out old joint appeared to be, sited right off a two-lane country road sitting right on the famous Old River next to a field of ripening tomatoes.

I was the dandy out of towner in the crowd. I had played a pair of libraires in San Joaquin County, first show was in Manteca then the second in French Camp. I am certain E Vitus Clampus has graced this monument to places all but forgotten.

Houseboats in Delta Heaven

The two professional dancers worked on a platform against a wall in the tavern. Each took a turn. The exotic dancing and skimpy costuming I had not expected, but its unvarnished honesty I found ordinary yet endearing.

Two young women had skills, costumes, music, and courage. I had only been in fancy joints where out of this world strippers worked. This was the first encounter I had ever had with much less pretentious exotic dancers surrounded by farms in the middle of the countryside had come to practice whipping a working man’s tavern into a rural frenzy.

While one danced the other woman walked from customer to customer with a hat. After one dancer finished, they switched roles. The duster pilot was a regular. Each danced just for the pilot. After he explained he’d buy lap dances from both women, customarily he’d get one lap dance early on in the evening and a second toward the end of the night. When he was really feeling his oats, he’d get the pair to dance for him at the same time.

The whole idea of a lap dance is to decrease the range from which a paying customer may best enjoy the pleasure found in exotic dancing. My crop duster pilot acquaintance played along, the dancer tugged on his ears, mussed his hair, ran her finger across the tip of his nose, and dared to stroke his leg, all his while she kept on dancing or hopping up on top his lap for some unbound choreography.

Having no experience with any of this I decided to not look too serious, keep smiling, try not to turn beet red, applause seemed a good idea.

“What are you waiting for?” My duster pilot friend asked. “Ten for one, twenty will get you two.”

Delta plumbing

Imagining an exotic dancer sitting on my lap in a roadside tavern putting me into a moment where what would happen next had put me out of my depth. I was in over my head.

First off all I had wanted to do was buy one beer, and I hadn’t even been able to do that. Being cornered I felt forced to play along, act like I was having fun, be courteous, show the dancers respect, I was duty bound to hold up my end of the transaction.

I was too embarrassed, didn’t know what to do, negotiations were sorted out with help from the bartender, the duster pilot and gentleman in the room. Everybody seemed to be waiting on my decision. Best part of these kinds of entertainments has to do with how much hot water the so-called lady killer can find himself being boiled alive in.

The dancer put on a shirt and buttoned it up, ostensibly, at least there were a few strategically left unfastened. Next, she gets out from her bag of tricks a genuine extra long peacock feather. Her partner spins a tune, a familiar song to the dancer as she moved intricately to each beat while taking my measure. My role was to stop smiling and focus my attention on the dancer and the dance. Teasing and taunting commenced, once she’d finished with the feather, she gave me a pat on the cheek, patting a second time, third time I got slapped, that was popular with the crowd, she puckered her lips blew me a kiss, ran her fingers through my hair, then pawed on my leg with one hand while unfastening the buttons of her shirt with the other. My job during this part of the performance was to look at her hand on my leg, the fingers on her buttons, look up into her eyes while we waited for the moment when that shirt would fly open and who knows when the vice squad was going to fly through the doors and arrest us all. I could see the headlines now— library performer arrested in tavern charged with participating in lewd behavior with exotic dancer.

I had overcome feeling embarrassed, circumstances were considerably more dire. I wanted to be good at this new work I’d been enlisted into. I wanted the dancer to feel her performance pleased, that I appreciated the experience, I wasn’t supposed to indicate that any of this was too frightening, that my dancer wasn’t anything other than the most wanted woman in the world, and if I could dig a little deeper into my pocket that I’d likely bring my first lap dance to a dignified conclusion.

The likelihood of my throwing my life away to shack up for the rest of my days on this good earth with an exotic dancer from Tracy, California had been tested.

I’d already decided I’d tip the second dancer before I got caught then hogtied and dragged into having a second round in this low budget roadside unrequited romance game I’d stumbled upon.

Things you’d never have the nerve to do lineup with things that just happen sometimes. Pulling off along a country road on a late summer late dusky day and there a show business veteran finds himself trying to extend common courtesy to my kindred sisters out hustling much as I’d been doing, working in the small time, for the small crowds, you give a show, you get a show. I took my bows as the curtain fell and walked off out of the tavern into the budding night.

Dumb luck, the human condition and life in the Delta had a head on collision with the naked truth. Doing the one thing you’ve always put off doing so you may leave this mortal plain having completed your life’s purpose, so you are not called upon to return for yet another infinite round of reincarnations, until you put to rest all the curiosities, set down all the temptations, cast out all these yearnings and misbegotten cravings. Fate would not allow my coming to earth and then leaving without buying at least one lap dance. The night out in the Delta was preordained. People who know me best said the fact was that all of this wasn’t just inevitable, it was my karma coming to the present moment to teach my soul. As the saying goes— I learned my lesson.


fixing leaky faucets

Lake Shasta April 2020

A Wall Street hedge fund has sent a posse of potato farming water grabbers out to Winnemucca, Nevada. Water Asset Management was formed in 2005 and is in the business of using water as a for profit investment vehicle.

Access to drinking water is a universally recognized human right. Defending this right and winning this argument at the United Nations was the tenacious Canadian activist Maude Barlow. Drinking water should never be bought, sold, bartered, or privatized. Deeded water rights to underground water shouldn’t be pumped out from underneath one community then piped far off to another wealthier place.

We’re in for a real brawl out here in the American West. For starters we already don’t have enough water. Now we’ve got more people, a growing population and they all arrive at the negotiating table believing they have the best ideas for how to use what little water there is. Water Asset Management is buying up land explicitly for access to the water rights deeded to the purchased properties.

Commercial and Recreational Fishing

What does our water future look like? For starters financializing deeded water rights is turning our common resource into a privatized water grabbing for profit scam. After urban water users’ rates get jacked up you can bet the farm lobby will go seek new water subsidies to offset the higher cost of production. Once consumers start squealing about how much a half gallon of milk has gone up, how expensive a loaf of bread has become, why every politician beholden to Big Ag will be lining up to make water cheaper for farms and ranches while sticking the bill to the urban taxpayers.

From the BBC, Marsha Daughenbaugh, 68, of Steamboat Springs wedge issues agricultures priority access to water use, “Ranching is not only an economic base for us, it’s a way of life.”

What does that mean? In 1994 a telephone operator in New Jersey was practicing a way of life until AT&T cut 20,000 jobs. Telephone operators would have had a better shot at keeping their way of life if they’d been saddled up and sitting on a horse while they were doing their telecommunication’s work.

Look we already have all the dams we’ll ever need, but we can’t finesse our way around a drought and expect to fill old or new reservoirs with water that doesn’t exist. The solution to fixing this mess is not complicated, everyone is going to have to use less water. That’s the new way of life barreling down on every enterprise and individual living West of the Pecos.  

Swallows playing in the Delta breeze

Due to overallocations up and down and all along the Colorado River a hands-on realistic water use plan will be needed for California, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico. Utah is going to be a more petulant childlike player on account of their whole humankind’s dominion over earth delusions, but we’ll set their fundamentalism aside for the moment.

Alfalfa and cotton farming needs to be relocated east where there is sufficient supplies of water. More crops need to end up on our supper tables. Eggplant, squash, watermelon, pineapples, strawberries, onions, spinach, carrots, lettuce, and tomatoes all use less water and are not just suitable for human consumption these fresh vegetables are healthier for both people and the planet.  

Stanford Law School’s award-winning Environmental and Natural Resources Law & Policy Program is training lawyers in the byzantine area of water law. As it sits right now outlawing alfalfa farming is illegal. Allocations are based strictly on whether there is or isn’t any water. There are rules about how to use the water but there are no rules about what to grow with the water. Water law is a tangled-up snake pit of economically threatened special interests.

Even if I can tell you cotton and alfalfa need to be shutdown, it is one hell of a long way further to settling that hornet’s nest of a mess in court with an enforceable decision, but that day is coming, and it will be arriving sooner than the water grabbers might have imagined.

In California pumping water from aquifers is undergoing a thorough rethink. This is known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Passed in 2014, agencies had until 2020 to file their plans to make groundwater resources sustainable by 2040. Those plans are subject to review and by political career ending loophole to be reassessed every five years.

Right now, a Limited Liability Company in Napa County can pump scarce and ancient groundwater, grow grapes then export the wine to foreign markets while stashing their profits offshore at a post office box known as a Caribbean tax haven. In other words we are a long way from a glidepath to sustainability.

California Water Alliance wants more water diverted from the Delta then piped to their members further south in the San Joaquin Valley. They almost pulled it off, but the courts stopped the water heist before the former administration could do further harm. The Sacramento and San Joaquin Valley Delta “is the most valuable estuary and wetland ecosystem on the west coast of North and South America and is the hub of California’s water delivery system.” Without the Delta there is no such thing as California.

Fishermen dependent on the salmon that would no longer be able to find suitable spawning grounds, which is a polite term for going extinct. Farmers running short of water do not care one whit about what happens to salmon in Northern California, that is not their problem.

In dryer and warmer low rainfall years farms need to be fallowed then put back into production in years when there is sufficient water. A real greenwashed-Astroturfing lobby group the California Water Alliance won’t have it and if diverting Delta water means driving salmon to the brink that’s just somebody else’s radical environmental activism hurting the economy.

Whether a citizen fishes or farms for their living both laudable enterprises but diverting water and then driving fish and fishermen to extinction and bankruptcy because you want to grow more subsidized cotton is a tragedy wrapped in a self-inflicted existential disaster.

None of this is ours to keep, it is ours to pass along to future generations. If while we continue to grow our economy and we were to decide salmon are expendable, then we’ve in some toxicologically bizarre way just admitted that we are expendable nothing is worth saving, except for holding onto the power to choose. Extinction events are not reserved for the unlucky few, man’s rapacious nature contains the seeds of self-destruction.

Largest system of dikes in the United States

In 2019 a misguided Federal cabinet member unilaterally ordered scarce water to be diverted from the Delta to farmers further south. Courts in Fresno halted the illegal diversion.

“This water grab was led by Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist and counsel for the Westlands Water District, the largest water district in the Central Valley and a significant beneficiary of the weakened biological opinions.” The weakening was done under the cloak of anti-science activists in the former administration.

For now, there is an uneasy stalemate and with the inexorable increasing temperatures and ever decreasing moisture levels in the soils of the American West. Urban areas are about to fight tooth and nail, from one farm field to the next over ever more scarce water. The drought is on and our water wars are only going to get worse. As the announcer says, “let’s get ready to rumble…”