To hear Congressman Devin Nunes tell it, politics and litigation are tools used solely by radical environmentalists to further their goals of depopulating the San Joaquin Valley. Nunes just published an extended diatribe arguing that “the Natural Resources Defense Council and several other environmentalist groups” are engaged in a plot to remove 1.3 million acres of San Joaquin Valley farmland from production.
In what has become a recurring theme for Nunes and other political leaders who carry water for corporate agriculture, Nunes claimed today’s drought is for the most part man-made:
“From my experience representing California’s agricultural heartland, I know that our water crisis is not an unfortunate natural occurrence; it is the intended result of a long-term campaign waged by radical environmentalists who resorted to political pressure as well as profuse lawsuits.”
Bizarre as Nunes’ claims may seem to anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of the Valley’s natural and political history, his views too often represent a dominant San Joaquin Valley narrative.
In fact, as early as the late nineteenth century, vast expanses in and around what is today Nunes’ 22nd District were already under the control of corporate agriculture. By the 1880s, James Ben Ali Haggin, “the Grand Khan of the Kern,” had increased his San Joaquin Valley holdings to 375,000 acres.
Like Haggin, famed cattlemen Henry Miller and Charles Lux operated out of San Francisco. They controlled over 120,000 acres. Also like Haggin, their properties extended through Tulare and Kern Counties, and north and west into Merced County and beyond.
Haggin’s story, and the stories of Lux and Miller, can be found in David Igler’s Industrial Cowboys: Miller and Lux and the Transformation of the Far West 1850-1920. The book is indispensable for anyone who wishes to understand the political history of land and water use in the San Joaquin Valley.
According to Igler, Haggin, Lux, and Miller realized early on that politics (also known as “political pressure”) was as important to acquisition of vast tracts of land as capital. As early as 1868, Miller and Lux hired Horace Higley, “to lobby for passage of the Green Act, which removed all acreage limitations on the amount of school and swampland an individual could claim.”
Higley was a former head of the California State Land Office and thus well-positioned to achieve the ends of his corporate employers. Once vast acreage of so-called “swampland” had been obtained at cut rates, landowners could “reclaim” it by draining wetlands and diverting water for irrigation.
Then as now, water was the critical element that transformed vast tracts of almost worthless land into empires of profit and power. And then as now, disputes about water were settled in the courts.
The landmark case, Lux v. Haggin (1881-86), featured the two corporate giants of San Joaquin Valley agriculture in a bitter legal battle that would establish precedents for water rights for years to come. And once precedents for water rights had been established, so was the rule that only the extremely well-financed and well-connected could challenge those rights.
And while Devin Nunes may argue that today’s drought is man-made, drought was as punishing a natural force to the San Joaquin Valley in the nineteenth century as it is today. After the dry winter of 1877, Henry Miller could find no grass for his and Lux’s cattle. They lost almost 10,000 head to starvation that year.
Ironically, part of Lux and Miller’s losses came as the results of water diversions from the Kern River. The diversions had been made by their corporate competitor, James Haggins.
Drought, politics, and litigation have thus been integral factors in San Joaquin Valley history almost since the first settlers. However, it’s only been in the last few decades that politics and litigation have become tools for others than the Valley’s corporate giants.
When growing demands for water exhausted the Kern and San Joaquin Rivers, corporate agriculture looked north and began tapping Sacramento River water via the San Joaquin Delta. But diversions from the Sacramento River soon threatened the ecosystem of the entire Delta, including fisheries and Delta farms. Nonetheless, the political and financial power amassed over more than a hundred years enabled corporate agriculture to appropriate ever more water from the north.
By the 1980s, a growing awareness of the detrimental effects of diminishing water supplies forced the people of California to begin contemplating revisions in California water law. As California’s citizens became more aware of the depleted state of their rivers and wetlands, they began realizing the need for public engagement in arguments over public resources. That engagement, both political and legal, was effected through the environmental groups Nunes has seen fit to demonize in his latest screed.
The current drought forced the state to establish groundwater regulation for the first time in its history. According to Nunes, the groundwater law is also a plot against Valley citizens:
“But these pumping restrictions, slated to take effect over the next decade, will reduce access to what has become the final water source for many Valley communities, which have increasingly turned to groundwater pumping as their surface water supplies were drastically cut.”
Pretending that San Joaquin Valley residents have suddenly been forced to resort to groundwater may be the most outrageous of Nunes’ long litany of egregious assertions. Just adjacent to Nunes’ District boundary, Fresno, the Valley’s largest city, has pumped most of its water from the ground since its founding.
In fact, much of Nunes’ district is in or near the largest known area of land subsidence in the world. The subsidence is the result of overdrafting groundwater; the overdrafting occurred long before the state established groundwater regulation and even long before Devin Nunes was born.
Nunes himself is only among the latest in a long line of Valley politicians who’ve chosen to further the interests of corporate agriculture at the expense of the public trust. Outraged that ordinary citizens have found ways to compete with corporate powers through politics and the courts system, Nunes has chosen inflammatory propaganda as yet another tool to maintain and extend corporate dominance in the San Joaquin Valley.
Unfortunately for Nunes, new media have made it easier for citizens to access the truth about private appropriation of public resources through political machinations. The kind of lobbying that enabled corporate giants like Lux and Miller ready access to Sacramento and Washington D.C. still goes on, but citizens today are finding it easier to track.
So when Johnny Amaral, Devin Nunes’ long-time chief of staff, is hired to lobby for Westlands Water District, the news spreads rapidly, first among water news insiders, then to the general public. And no one has to wonder how it is that Westlands, despite having very junior water rights, manages to wield so much political power in California’s water wars.
After all, the $250,000 salary Westlands will pay Amaral is but a small portion of the district’s annual political expense. Westlands paid four different firms $730,000 to lobby in Washington D.C. last year, and employs another firm to lobby in Sacramento.
Nonetheless, don’t expect Devin Nunes to stop hyperventilating about environmental groups using politics and litigation on behalf of the public interest. As far as Nunes and his corporate friends are concerned, politics and the courts should continue their long history of exclusive service for the rich and powerful. Anything else, says Nunes, “will lead to the collapse of modern civilization in the San Joaquin Valley.”