Bleeding California dry

July 28, 2015

Ragina Johnson reports on the latest developments in California's drought crisis--and why individual conservation alone isn't enough to repair the damage.

CALIFORNIA GOV. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in April, mandating urban centers to reduce water usage by 25 percent.

His announcement came after Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, sounded the alarm that California water reservoirs and groundwater supplies are dramatically contracting. The state has only one year left of Mother Nature's ancient aquifers if climate change continues and the state doesn't curb usage.

Since Brown's announcement, the situation has worsened. Mountaintops in California barely received a touch of snow in the spring, and rainfall hasn't yet made up for the last few years of below normal precipitation.

California is four years into an intense drought, and scientists have calculated that this year will be the driest in more than four centuries. A record number of fires have burned across the state after brief rains produced sprigs of greenery that quickly dried up, becoming starter fuel. Cal Fire reported that it reacted to 1,100 fires so far this year, almost twice as many as usual for the same period.

A dried-up lake bed in California
A dried-up lake bed in California (Don DeBold)

The ecology of the state is in deep crisis. Photo essays have captured the apocalyptic drama of boats resting close to the bottom of once full reservoirs and old ghost towns that were once submerged reappearing. Farming continues to suck groundwater at deadly rates, and various parts of the California are sinking by a foot a year. This isn't just affecting agriculture fields in the Central Valley, but big infrastructure, like bridges.

Walking around working-class neighborhoods, one can't help but notice brown lawns and dying plants, which shows how seriously people are taking the task of water conservation. Opinion polls show the water crisis and drought has become the number-one issue for Californians.

WHAT'S STRIKING is who's willing to conserve--and who isn't.

Forty-eight percent of wealthier homeowners with incomes above $100,000 a year say it would be "difficult" to conserve water. While many people with more modest means have replanted with indigenous and drought-tolerant plants, the well-to-do appear to be resisting with vigor.

Conservative talk show host Steve Yuhas is a case in point. He recently ranted on social media that rich homeowners "should not be forced to live on property with brown lawns, golf on brown courses or apologize for wanting their gardens to be beautiful."

Later, he said in an interview, "We pay significant property taxes based on where we live. And, no, we're not all equal when it comes to water."

That's true, unfortunately. We aren't "all equal" when it comes to access to vital resources, like water--or food or housing, for that matter. Rancho Santa Fe, where Yuhas lives, is a gated community with multi-acre estates, country clubs and ranches. There, water consumption has gone up by 9 percent since Brown's mandatory 25 percent reduction went into effect.

Over the last few months, investigative reports have shown the disparities in household consumption. These stories have given voice to the people who don't live on estates like Yuhas.

One such article in the New York Times juxtaposed those living in two very different neighborhoods. According to the Times, stay-at-home mom Alysia Thomas lives in the working class city of Compton, California, and "tells her children to skip a bath on days when they do not play outside; that holds down the water bill." Lillian Barrera, a housekeeper, serves dinner to her family on paper plates to conserve, because it saves money.

Pediatric neurologist Peter L. Himber, however, lives in Cowan Heights, and decided to stop watering his vast estate, even though he had "spent $100,000 to turn into a green California paradise, seeding it with a carpet of rich native grass and installing a sprinkler system fit for a golf course."

Another resident of Cowan Heights, John Sears, a retired food-company executive complained, "If we cut back 35 percent and all these homes just let everything go, what's green will turn brown. Tell me how the fire risk will increase."

CONCERNS ABOUT the drought have motivated many Californians to conserve water, but it's also important to underscore the fact that the economic situation facing working people had already forced them to conserve, even prior to mandatory restrictions.

One example from the Bay Area: The historically Black and working-class city of Oakland uses 57 gallons per person per day, compared to Diablo, an elite community a 30-minute drive away, where use is at 345 gallons per person. Examples like this run throughout the state and show that the owners of multimillion-dollar homes and estates haven't blinked an eye at Brown's proposed fines of $100 for consuming too much water.

Ordinary people are often blamed for consuming too much, but the reality shows that poorer Californians are often the first who are forced to conserve--due to their limited paychecks.

California has become one of the most unequal states in the U.S. The vast majority of people in California are living paycheck to paycheck. They are faced with skyrocketing rents and housing costs. Research now shows a family needs to earn $26 a hour to afford to live in a two-bedroom apartment in California--an hourly wage that is largely out of reach for most residents.

Rising class inequality and, along with it, different perspectives on water consumption have also shown up in gourmet "water tasting bars" in Los Angeles that charge $50 for a sampling.

The focus on the consumption of the rich should be extended to the heads of corporations that continue to make a profit by stealing and/or polluting the majority of the water consumed in California. Brown has refused to place limits on the expansion of oil and gas production using hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," which consumes tens of millions of gallons of water. Meanwhile, the byproduct waste is being pumped into aquifers to dispose of it, contaminating billions more gallons.

The cold hard facts about water usage show that the bulk of California's water is going to big agriculture and commodity food production, not individual consumption. According to one report, of the 12 million acre-feet of total water lost yearly since 2011, roughly two-thirds are attributable to groundwater pumping for agricultural irrigation in the Central Valley.

HOW CORPORATIONS and the rich consume this vital resource in order to make a profit at the expense of ecosystems and ordinary people points toward the much bigger systematic and structural changes that need to be made if we are going to stop California from being bled dry.

For one, this brings up a much-needed discussion about how our food and energy need to be produced sustainably, and why commodity-based food production for markets is a dead end.

Technological fixes being pushed as solutions today avoid looking at how water is being polluted by hydraulic fracturing or wasted by big agriculture. Some Kern County farms are reportedly using "refurbished water" from oil and gas production to water their fields--without knowing the potential consequences.

There also is discussion about expanding the development of costly desalination plants. But in addition to consuming vast amounts of energy, there is so far no sustainable method for disposing the salt-waste byproduct from large-scale desalination.

Ultimately, California's water crisis is a social and a political problem that touches on how we need to conserve precious resources--something that the profit system doesn't take into account. Meanwhile, the continued extraction and use of fossil fuels is increasing CO2 emissions and climate change, which is causing hotter climates and severe droughts. A recent record heat wave in India killed 2,500, and Pakistan is facing a similar heat wave.

This increasing crisis is a deeply human issue--not only in terms of the effects of climate change and related disasters, but the human labor used in the process of creating profit for the rich. As the drought was making the national news, farmworkers in Mexico went on strike over working conditions and abysmal pay. In California, migrant and low-wage workers in the agricultural industry face the same conditions and issues, not to mention higher unemployment now due to the drought.

Just under the surface of the politics of water in California is a history of incredible injustice and racism. Water rights in California were established during the Gold Rush era as part of the colonial history of the state alongside a genocidal war against indigenous peoples. Aspects of water usage became privatized during an endless drive for profit based on land- and resource-grabs as the state was gobbled up by the U.S.

The "first in time, first in right" doctrine--a legal precedent that those who first use a resource are given the right over others to use it in the future--continues to impact indigenous communities alongside our ecosystems.

Indigenous rights and self-determination are therefore also intertwined with a fight for a more sustainable California. In discussions surrounding the drought, indigenous tribes in California have called for treaty rights to be upheld in order to protect fish, waterways and our ecology. In the words of Caleen Sisk of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, indigenous nations:

deserve some benefits from the water projects that have already been built, and we deserve a stronger say in how water is allocated and stored. If tribes are given a real place at the decision-makers' table, we can help guide California's water system back to a place where we can withstand a few years with low rainfall. Trees, wolves, beavers, delta smelt, salmon and a beautiful estuary are necessary for California's healthy water system.

The stakes are high: This crisis is severe and goes well beyond the drought in the Golden State. Due to global warming and climate change, not only are California's aquifers being bled dry, but according to NASA, the world is running out of fresh water--with 21 of the world's 37 largest aquifers having passed their "sustainability tipping points."

Big solutions to solve the ecological crisis are what are needed--system change, not climate change.

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