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Dr Pepper's Wet Dream: Water, Government Subsidies and Transfer of Wealth in the Middle of the Desert

A bottling plant in the middle of the desert? In the warped "pro-business" logic of a sprawling, bankrupt desert city in California, the plan made perfect economic sense.

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Most of the growth was built on empty promises. Victorville was supposed to become the industrial and manufacturing capital of Southern California. Now completely bankrupt, the city has some of the highest unemployment and foreclosure rates in California, with home prices shrinking to 1989 levels.

To Victorville officials, the advantages of job growth, no matter how minuscule, far outweigh any concerns over the increased water use. But some locals are not convinced that the plant is such a good idea. Because no matter how you slice it, corporate interests and political ambitions come out as the only real winners.

Victorville is the biggest and most powerful of the half-dozen closely packed cities and towns and smaller unincorporated desert communities that make up Victor Valley. The 350,000 people who call this place home are a varied bunch -- ex-military types, retirees, lower-income subprime mortgage fodder -- but they are all linked by a common and very limited resource.

"How does what happens in Victorville affect the rest of us? The water that we have in this valley is a shared resource that is supposed to be controlled by a California Supreme Court ruling," says Paul Bosecki, a council member for the city Hesperia, Victorville's neighbor. "Victorville has made more than a few bad choices lately. The full-speed ahead, pedal-to-the-metal attitude has consequences when it fails to deliver. It comes down to public interest versus private interest, with the public interests such as water for the residents of this valley coming after Victorville's business ambitions."

Standing on the sandy turf where the future bottling plant will stand and looking around at the Joshua trees and tumbleweeds stretching out as far as the eye can see, it's easy to see why people like Bosecki are worried.

Victorville receives 5 to 6 inches of rainfall a year. For comparison: Death Valley gets 2 inches, semi-arid Los Angeles gets 15 and New York City gets 28. Not surprisingly, a recent poll conducted by the Mojave Water Agency found that 90 percent of the local population was concerned about the availability of water.

Out here in the desert, water will soon become more precious than oil. Underground water reserves have been shrinking for decades. In fact, local aquifers here have been in overdraft -- with more water being pumped out than is replaced naturally -- since the 1950s.

To recharge its underground sources, the Mojave Water Agency has been purchasing water from the State Water Project via the California Aqueduct, which pumps water hundreds of miles via concrete rivers, all the way from the Sacramento Delta. But the recent subprime-fueled population explosion, combined with a total lack of water regulation and California's persistent drought conditions have put the overdraft process into overdrive.

Victor Valley residents use an average of 200 to 250 gallons per day, more than twice the national average. Not surprisingly, the aquifer is being drained at record levels. Victorville old-timers say that at the turn of the century, groundwater was so abundant in some parts of the city and so close to the surface that springs would pop up overnight and wash away pavement and roads. Now, wells that tapped fresh water at a 1,000 feet two decades ago have gone dry.

The more rustic parts of Victor Valley seem to be more mindful of water usage, with gravel-filled and desert-landscaped yards a common sight. Victorville proper is not as keen on conservation. The city is not trying to sell the desert lifestyle, but attempts to re-create the suburban ideal of green lawns, lush trees and golf courses.

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