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Why Just About Everything You Hear About California's Water Crisis Is Wrong, Wrong, Wrong

The media and the governor are warning of the "worst drought in history" in California We're being lied to.
 
 
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We've been lied to for years now about the severity of California's water shortage. The media and state officials have been ringing the alarm, warning that the state was in the grips of the quite possibly the "worst California drought in modern history," when in fact the state nearly pulled in its average rainfall in 2009. The fearmongering is about to go into overdrive, as powerful interests start whipping up fears of drought to push through a $11 billion bond measure on the upcoming November elections, setting up the Golden State for a corporate water grab.

One of the big boosters promoting the drought scare is Gov. Schwarzenegger, who declared a state of emergency in early 2009, and promised to reduce water deliveries across the state by a whopping 80 percent.

Such a huge cutback is alarming for a state in which most of the population lives hundreds of miles away from water sources and is dependent on a gargantuan aqueduct system for basic survival. Journalists in a wide range of publications have recently seized on this juicy disaster-in-progress story, hitting their readers with heavy-handed images of drought and suffering that seemed more in line with something filed on a UN humanitarian mission in Somalia than news from the heart of California.

Has the drought really been that bad? According to the November/December 2009 issue of Mother Jones, yes, it has: "[F]armers are selling prized almond trees for firewood, fields are reverting to weed, and farm workers who once fled droughts in Mexico are overwhelming food banks. In short, the valley is becoming what an earlier generation of refugees thought they'd escaped: an ecological catastrophe in the middle of a social and economic one -- a 21st century Dust Bowl." 60 Minutes' recent segment on California's water crisis agreed, proclaimed: "You don't have to go to Africa or the Middle East to see how much the planet is running dry. Just go to California."The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, McClatchy's, the Wall Street Journal -- all have sung the same tune.

When left, right, print, broadcast and mainstream media outlets agree, it has to be true, right? Well, not exactly. Here's what an end-of-the-year update published in November 2009 by the US Bureau of Reclamation had to say about the drought: precipitation in 2009 was about 94 percent of average in Northern California, which is the most important region for precipitation, since it is where three-quarters of the state's water comes from.

Ninety-four percent of average? That does not sound like severe drought conditions at all. But don't tell that to California's Department of Water Resources, which still has a huge DHS-style "Drought Condition Severe" orange alert plastered on its Web site.

The power of simple fact-checking aside, why would California officials exaggerate -- if not outright lie -- about the drought? Well, the issue here is less about the drought itself and more about what a drought -- real or not -- can help achieve. If there is one thing 2009 revealed about California's "action hero" governor, it's that he is eagerly willing to serve as the front man for the sleaziest, most crooked business cartel in the state: a de facto water oligarchy made up of billionaire corporate farmers who run vast stretches of the state like their own personal fiefdoms, exploiting migrant workers for slave labor and soaking the taxpayers for billions of dollars in subsidies every year. And like all good businessmen, they aren't letting a good mini-crisis go to waste. Their objective is to whip up fears of a drought-related calamity to push through a "solution" they've been having wet dreams about for the past five decades: a multi-billion-dollar aqueduct the width of the Panama Canal that would give them near total control of more than half of California's water supplies.

That's what the state's "historic" $11-billion bond measure that will appear on the November 2010 ballot is all about. A columnist at the Stockton Recordsaid it best: It "really amounts to an old-fashioned California water grab based on the failure to face nature's limits."

In the convoluted world of California water politics, nothing is ever what it seems. And this time, it appears that even the most well-meaning of journalists fighting the good fight fell hook, line and sinker for the propaganda spun out by California's well-greased water oligarchy. But if everyone got something as basic as the premise of California's supposed water crisis -- the drought -- wrong, what else did they miss? Turns out, quite a bit. With no real drought in California, a lot of the myths, falsehoods and outright lies meant to stir up the masses might no longer makes sense. On the other hand, just because the state has rain doesn't mean the state can't run out water, not with the way corporate farmers are ramping up the pumping of the state's increasingly-overtapped water supplies. So here are the top five things your bullshit meter should be picking up:

Myth: Urban water conservation is key in protecting California's water resources


Schwarzenegger's mandate that urban water use be cut by 20 percent has earned the governor a lot of green cred, but few people realize that his plan for water conservation is actually a forced wealth transfer scheme in a environmentalist disguise. Conservation is a good idea, but it won't do much good for California, no matter how diligent residents are about turning off the tap while brushing or the number of low-flush toilets they install, not unless farmers are forced to conserve water as well.

It is a simple matter of discrimination. Why is the agricultural industry exempted from mandatory conservation when it consumes an unreal 80% of California's water? There won't be much conservation going on even if every living soul in California up and moves to another state. Because no matter how much water city dwellers save, it'll be sucked up by wealthy corporate farmers who are always on the lookout for more taxpayer-subsidized wet wealth. And with water trading for a minimum at ten times what they pay for it on the open market, every gallon a city dweller conserves will will end up as cash in the personal bank account of some wealthy corporate farmers. It's all part of the master plan because, even as the governor talks up urban conservation, he tries his darnedest to get them more water.

Myth: Irrigation water rationing is causing California's unemployment to spike to critical levels.

I could quote from a number of news sources -- Fox News, CBS, Mother Jones, the New York Times -- to demonstrate the pervasiveness of this bogus notion, but luckily there is no need because most of the stuff is oddly similar to the media spam cranked out by Governor Schwarzenegger's press secretary. Something like this: "[Drought] conditions are causing a loss of livelihood for many thousands of people, an inability to provide for families, and increased harm to the communities that depend on them . . . the Central Valley town of Mendota, as one example, already reports an unemployment rate of more than 40 percent and lines of a thousand or more for food distribution."

Had any journalist bothered to look up its unemployment rate for some other year, they would have seen that water has never been a factor. Over a decade ago, Mendota's unemployment normally ranged from 28 to 32 percent. In 1998, a wet year, it had an unemployment rate of 38 percent. In 2002, a slightly dry year, unemployment was still the same: 37.7 percent.

The chronic hardship seen in Mendota, and the much of the Central Valley, can not be neatly blamed on the weather. There are other bigger, more ominous forces at play here. Mendota is in a bad place, at once existing on the edge of America's poorest Congressional District and also in one of its wealthiest, most subsidized farming communities: the Westlands Water District. This is how Lloyd G. Carter, a veteran UPI reporter who has covered California's farming industry for three decades, describes it: "Rule is by the rich. Indeed, in Westlands, which is a public agency, the growers with the most land have the most votes in electing directors to the district's board. The late Justice William O. Douglas called this voting control by the big growers a corporate political kingdom undreamed of by those who wrote our Constitution."

To put it another way: the billionaire farmers who run Westlands like their own fiefdom have always liked to keep their labor costs down, preferring low-paid migrant workers to those who would register with the unemployment office.

Myth: The "drought" is hurting small, family farmers -- "the backbone of America" -- the most.

Small farmers are hurting, but rarely does it have anything to do with water rationing. You'll find gobs of farmer pity in just about every story filed on the Central Valley, but most forget to mention that the bulk of the land threatened by water shortages is owned by wealthy corporate farmers clustered in and around Westlands Water District, in the driest, hottest and most isolated corner of the Central Valley. Most of these "farmers" don't rise with the crow of the rooster, but fly in on private jets from Orange County and Beverly Hills. Most journalists, like the one who wrote a long rambling piece in the David Eggers special Bay Area newspaper production, Panorama, insist on painting scenes of family farm life in sentimental pastel while ignoring the agribiz moguls who really run the show.

But you get to meet one of the boys from Westlands doing his struggling farmer routine on 60 Minutes, giving viewers a walkthrough of his family-farm-in-crisis, explaining how the drought forced him to fallow some of his fields while, in the background, massive shredding trucks turned $18-million worth his almond trees into a neat pile of wood chips. The 60 Minutes segment, like most other farmer profiles, left out the stuff that would squelch any sympathy for their cause. Like the fact that the Woolf family clan operates the "biggest farming operation in Fresno County" that receives $4.2 million in taxpayer-subsidized water every year, enough to supply a city of 150,000 people. In the past decade, the dozen or so companies partially owned by Stuart Woolf have taken in roughly $8 million in federal crop subsidies. But Stuart Woolf still feels like he isn't getting enough. In 2008, he threatened a congressional subcommittee that he'd move his family's farm holdings to Portugal, Spain, Turkey and even China if the feds didn't give him more taxpayer-subsidized water.

Myth: Water shortages threaten to wipe out California's agricultural industry, causing a chain reaction that will cripple the state's economy and raise food prices around the country, maybe even the world.

It's true, a total meltdown of California's agricultural industry, the largest in the United States, would be bad news for everyone involved. But the problem with this apocalyptic domino effect, which pops up as a talking point on Schwarzneger's press releases and is parroted by the likes of Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal, is a pesky thing called reality. Most irrigation districts have been getting their water on schedule. And because the drought has only affected atiny sliver -- about two percent -- of California's total farmland, most of which happens to be some of the most heavily-subsidized growing operations in the state, any "multiplier effect" is bound to be limited, if noticeable at all.

Take Westlands Water District, where a sizable chunk of the state's fallowed farmland is concentrated. The district produces about $1 billion in gross income a year, $750 million of which is funded by water subsidies. Add to that hundreds of millions more in direct crop subsidies, and pretty soon the government ends up funding most, if not all of Westlands' economic output. Even if Westlands farmers weren't such welfare queens, it would be hard to get worked even if the entire old billionaire club went under. After all, their entire output amounts to one-half of one percent of California's $1.8 trillion. And we're not talking about missing out on vital crops here: who'd even notice an uptick in almond prices?

Myth: Big city environmentalists are making the drought more serious than it actually is.

In 2007, a federal judge limited the amount of water that could be pumped out of Northern California because it endangering a small, but important fish called the Delta smelt, which is now protected by the California Endangered Species Act. Ever since, California's wealthy Central Valley farmers -- including Westlands -- have staged a public relations war, blaming big city elitists for caring more about the environment than they do about American farmers. "Thanks to environmental regulations designed to protect the likes of the three-inch long delta smelt, one of America's premier agricultural regions is suffering in a drought made worse by federal regulations," pronounced a Wall Street Journal editorial in September 2009.

Fox News took the attack to a whole new level, with Sean Hannity proclaiming that President and his Royal Democratic-Socialist Guard were single-handedly killing off hardworking American farmers and demanded that the Obama "turn this water on now." The funny thing is that Obama had already done that, when the court-ordred pumping restrictions were lifted three months earlier.

The reason these farmers weren't getting their water had nothing to do with the fish, and all to do with their "junior" water rights and a bailout business mentality. In the past decade, farmers had lobbied for and received 30% more water than they did in the 1990s, knowingly taking a gamble by planting permanent, high-cost crops in an area first to suffer water cutbacks during dry times. But they did it anyway, fully expecting to get the government to keep delivering the water even in a time of drought, which it has. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, even the most junior water rights holders were receiving almost all of their water all throughout 2009.

Where has all that water gone? Well, some of the farmers have been selling it on the open market, frequently flipping their heavily taxpayer-subsidized water back to the government for twice the price. One millionaire farmer-cum-real-estate-developer made roughly $60 million selling his welfare water to a McTractHome paradise in the Mojave Desert, selling water was easier and more lucrative than farming.

Bonus myth: the drought has sparked a grassroots movement of farm owners and farm workers, uniting to pressure the government for more water.

Nothing exposes Arnold Schwarzenegger and his billionaire farmers backers for the sadistic slime balls that they are than the Latino Water Coalition, an astroturf group created by farming interests, paid for by taxpayer money and blessed by the governor himself. The group was designed to give a populist face to a purely corporate cause, paying poor Latino migrant workers to take part in protests staged for the benefit of Fox News' camera, even sent to go on a 5-day "March for Water" to draw attention to California farmers' plight and generally exploiting the exploited so that you can help you exploit them even more. But the worst part about it is that well-meaning journalists fell for it.

 

Yasha Levine is a freelance writer and editor of eXiledonline.
 
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