River Wars, Episode II: The King of California and Imperial San Francisco

The King of California

Marc Reisner’s, Cadillac Desert, is still the primary text for those who would understand water use in the arid American west, but the recent flap over the proposed sale of Tuolumne River water to the city of San Francisco by the Modesto Irrigation District (MID) is best illuminated by Mark Arax’s, The King of California, and Gray Brechin’s, Imperial San Francisco.

In The King of California, Arax and Rick Wartzman present an alternately blistering critique and qualified tribute to the rapacious genius of the late James Boswell, whose family transplanted a plantation economy from Georgia cotton fields into the southern San Joaquin Valley. In the process, the Boswells drained the largest lake west of the Mississippi, revived King Cotton from near death from the ravages of the Boll Weevil, and made a fine art of socializing of costs while privatizing profits.

The Boswell saga is the mother of all corporate ag narratives, showing a dark side of big agriculture that is all the more terrifying because it’s been so well hidden.

In, Imperial San Francisco, San Francisco takes on a persona of its own as Brechin chronicles the history of an insatiable appetite for natural resources that began with the founding of the city and shows no signs of abating today. Far from the romantic city “high on hill,” San Francisco is described as a man-made maelstrom that consumes the natural environment with the calculated precision of Las Vegas slot machine consuming silver dollars.

Of course, it’s not really the City itself that devours water, timber, gold, silver and entire natural landscapes (Hetch Hetchy). Like the Central Valley, San Francisco’s appetite for resources and ecosystems has been driven by its own breed of corporate tycoons, including William Randolph Hearst.

Hearst’s uses of news media are well documented and widely known, but the equally influential exploits of the de Young family are just as worthy of exposure, and Brechin provides plenty of detail. Owners of the San Francisco Chronicle until July 27, 2000, when they were bought out by the Hearst Corporation, the de Youngs promoted urban expansion at every opportunity, in many cases steering the growth onto land they had acquired chiefly for increasing its value.

Today, the City says it wants MID water as a hedge against dry years, but that story doesn’t fly for those who know San Francisco is already using less than its allotted supply of water and has yet to introduce the kind of conservation measures other major cities instituted years ago. Those who know their history would bet that if the past offers a precedent, a San Francisco speculator, or a group of them, has designs on Tuolumne River water.

Meanwhile, river enthusiasts who joined the Tuolumne River Trust’s annual “Paddle to the Sea” event last week found the river too shallow in many places to paddle at all. They described the river as “warm, eutrophic,” and impassable in some places by either canoe or kayak.

These descriptions are odds with the claims of those who say there’s more than enough Tuolumne River water and even a surplus which can be sold with no harm to anyone. The discrepancy comes from decades of water history known only to the few who’ve been interested enough to follow the story, which has received scant media attention, often because media owners themselves tend to profit from lack of public knowledge about the appropriation of public resources for private use.

The fact is our rivers are heavily polluted, inhospitable to native fish that once flourished by the hundreds of thousands, and still subject to catastrophic flooding, despite one of the most marvelous networks of dams, levees, and canals in the world.

The disparate views about our rivers between those who claim we have “plenty of water” and those arguing we don’t have enough are the result of different ways of looking at rivers. In Episode III, we explore the differences.





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