Valley Water: The Big Lie

Going South.

Of all the mythologies that dominate San Joaquin Valley politics, the mythology of water may be the most powerful and enduring. The basis of the myth consists of a simple fiction that states, unequivocally, that all valley water is, “our water.”

Grammarians, of whom there are fewer and fewer, might ask who is meant by “our,” but such a question would be grossly out of order in a region where the residents virtually uniformly believe “our” means “my.”  If there were such things as careful consideration and critical thinking involved in the discussion (not to mention grammar), the errors in this confusion of pronouns wouldn’t just reveal trivial concerns, but instead a really big lie.

Thus, when California state government attempts to have a say in the allocation of water from valley rivers, valley citizens rise as one, screaming in unison, “Water Grab!” The trick here, as in many tricks, lies in a simple act of misdirection.

Yes, there is a water grab, but it’s not the state that’s grabbing the water, it’s valley farmers—and who better to promote an enduring myth than those same farmers, whose long history of storytelling includes the tale of the struggling family whose daily toil with tractor, hoe, and shovel keeps food on our tables?

Even with the evidence of our eyes, we’re still prone to overlook the hundreds of miles of nut trees everywhere in favor of believing most valley farmers are hard at work growing the foods people actually eat—the tomatoes, leafy greens, beans, peas, carrots, and other vegetables. These crops have in fact most recently been tossed aside in favor of almonds and pistachios, the vast bulk of which are exported. The inevitable result is a rise in prices of foods most of us really do put on our tables.

Here are a couple of facts about farmers and water:  (1) Farmers use by far the most water of any business in California (here’s where to look for the clearest explanation of water use in California), and (2) agriculture produces only about 2% of California’s gross domestic product. Anyone who looks at the San Joaquin or Tuolumne Rivers in an average year will see they almost always run low, especially in summer. In fact, for decades, the San Joaquin River ran dry every year for a length of sixty miles, strictly because of water diversions by farmers.

Los Angeles’ Stuart Resnick is by far the nation’s most successful nut farmer. He owns at least 180,000 acres of farmland, most of it in the southern San Joaquin Valley, and virtually monopolizes the domestic pistachio business. Resnick alone uses over 400,000 acre feet of water a year; compare that figure to the 587,000 acre feet per year consumed by the entire city of Los Angeles.

Some might wonder how Resnick manages to acquire so much water every year in a region as arid and desert-like as the southern San Joaquin Valley. The answer is propaganda and politics. In fact, politics is the magic act by which “our water” becomes “their water.”

Once farmers had used up virtually all the available water in the southern San Joaquin Valley—that is, once they had drained the largest lake west of the Mississippi and diverted almost all the water from valley rivers, and once they had pumped all the groundwater from one of the last of the nation’s great aquifers—they looked north for so-called “surplus water.” Ever since, at great public expense and to the detriment of fisheries, recreational values, and the ecology of the San Joaquin Delta and San Francisco Bay, farmers in the south have been buying water from the north at bargain rates. “Our water” became their water, and they’ve made enormous fortunes with it.

Gimme that Water! San Joaquin River photo by Josh Uecker

But even here in the northern San Joaquin Valley the big lie about water gets spread with virtually no opposition. Consider Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini’s recent “State of the County” speech last Tuesday.

During his speech, DeMartini made the bizarre claim that water stored behind dams belongs to the entities that built the dams:

“No state or federal money went into the construction of the Don Pedro and Exchequer dams,” he proclaimed. “These dams are owned by the ratepayers of the irrigation districts. Yet the State Water Resources Control Board wants to take the water stored behind those facilities that we own, and use it for their purpose.”

DeMartini conveniently left out the historical fact that O’Shaughnessy Dam, completed in 1923, lies above Don Pedro Dam and was paid for by the city of San Francisco. By DeMartini’s logic, the Tuolumne River water stored behind O’Shaughnessy Dam should all belong to the city of San Francisco. In fact, San Francisco diverts about 14 percent of the Tuolumne River’s total flow.

DeMartini also manages to leave out what is likely the most overlooked fact about water in the valley and that is the reality that much of “our” river  and reservoir water is pumped into farmers’ fields and orchards via groundwater. Hydrologists tell us that groundwater is for the most part produced by flows from rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. Thus, when you see a body of water such as Modesto Reservoir surrounded by almond orchards, you can be assured that much of the water for those orchards comes from the reservoir itself, which supposedly belongs to the City of Modesto.

The obvious reason valley farmers and most residents fear any reduction in water for agriculture is economics. Agriculture is by far the valley’s most powerful economic engine, and so dominant that few valley citizens ever think about how few ag dollars actually trickle down to the broader populace.

Known as the Appalachia of the West, the San Joaquin Valley is one of the poorest regions in the United States. Many believe that much of the poverty is due to what they call a “Plantation Economy,” an economy that disproportionately concentrates wealth into a small percentage of the population.

Farmers have long realized the source of wealth in the Valley is water and have thus virtually monopolized the use of a public resource. This appropriation of a public resource for private gain is almost never questioned, mostly because farmers and their friends are superb propagandists. Yes, it’s “our” water, but why is it so few of us share in its bounty?


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