Gladys Colunga gathering water for her family in Tulare County, California. Credit KQED blog. All rights reserved.
Water—it’s a big topic for small town talk all around central California. Madera, some 30 miles west of the state’s geographic center, is a hot and arid farming community in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley. At a run-down neighborhood convenience store situated at the corner of two dusty farm roads surrounded by modest homes and lush crops, after-work chit chat inevitably turns to water. Locals shake their heads while remarking that this area has always been known for its easily accessible groundwater.
Yet every day, new residential wells are going dry while large corporate farms continue to drain groundwater at breakneck speed to keep water-rich mega-crops flourishing like almonds and grapes—or to sell it to the highest bidder. Why are corporate profits trumping community rights to water? Shouldn’t those most affected by corporate misappropriation of groundwater resources be the ones to decide their water future?
Dry wells have become so common that residents are forced to devise extreme measures to supply water for basic cooking and hygiene. In measures that were once unthinkable, hoses run through windows between neighbors’ homes, pumping water from large storage tanks filled by trucks. Some families have to rely on store-bought bottled water or hauling gallons of the stuff home in the back of their pickups. Most can’t afford the $13,000-25,000 price tag to drill a new well. But even for residents with means, waiting lists for residential well drilling are 6-12 months long, partly because of competition from corporate farms who bring in higher-paying well-drilling jobs.
Agricultural wells, which are deeper than residential wells, can cost $500,000 or more, but even at that price, cash crops for export like almonds still remain money-makers. Bob Smittcamp, the CEO of Lyons Magnus, a corporation that grows and processes agricultural products as well as manufacturing food packaging, has shelled out $1 million to purchase his own well drilling rig to supply his crops. Other agribusinesses are making money in the new drought economy through ‘groundwater mining.’ With water scarcity come higher prices and profiteering: over 60 billion gallons of Central Valley groundwater may be sold for profit this year according to a recent analysis by KQED, a public media company in Northern California.
“If you own property, you can dig a well and you can pump as much groundwater as you a want,” University of California at Irvine hydrologist Jay Famiglietti told KQED, “even if that means you are drawing water in from beneath your neighbor’s property…it’s not unlike having several straws in a glass, and everyone drinking at the same time, and no one’s really watching the level.”
Corporate farms persist in turning over thousands of acres of old rangeland and vineyards to plant new almond trees, which won’t produce for three years or more—by which time the groundwater will be even further depleted. Already, parts of the Central Valley are sinking about one foot per year as water tables plunge.
When residents call foul on these practices, they repeatedly come up against a brick wall of political excuses, cronyism, and state laws that protect corporate profits while ensuring that people continue to go without the water they need.
“We can't really use public funds to help a private well owner,” Tulare County Supervisor Steve Worthly recently told National Public Radio (NPR), “I really don't see a place for the government to come in and provide the funds for everybody's well...There's going to be thousands and thousands of wells that are going to go out.” And yet, Worthly continued, “We're not in a position to tell farmers, ‘No, you can't have a permit to drill a well so you can keep your crop alive,’ even though we know it has a collateral impact.”
In 2014, groundwater management plans were mandated by state legislation for all California counties, but the new law allows most local agencies up to 25 years to draft and implement them. Against the background of such feeble policies, community organizations and their supporters are entering the legal arena directly. Two groups—“Protecting Our Waters and Environmental Resources” (POWER) and the “California Sportfishing Protection Alliance”—filed lawsuits last year. The first one aimed to force 16 large-scale farmers in nine municipalities to adhere to the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act before drilling new wells.
The case settled out of court when most of the farmers agreed to pay $190,000 toward the cost of groundwater studies. Effectively, the community’s right to water was bargained away to agribusiness. The second lawsuit aims to mandate environmental reviews before any new agricultural wells are permitted. Even if this case ‘wins’ at trial in October 2015, the ineffectual hamster wheel of regulation will persist, since the current framework of permitting effectively provides official sanction to water pilfering for profit.
As groundwater becomes scarcer because of legally sanctioned privatization, residents of the Central Valley are calling out the culprits. Addressing the Fresno County Board of Supervisors in March, Robert Mitchell called for a moratorium on new almond crops. In nearby Tulare County, mother of six Gladys Colunga—who’s well went dry while her home was surrounded by water-saturated almond crops—told NPR that “We're a family, we have children and we need that water. We have the right to have that basic thing. It's water.”
My own well went dry last month, so now my family survives on water from a tank that I can see from my kitchen window, situated between my house and acres of green, flood-irrigated grapevines. When the tank is filled from a nearby agricultural well by local workers, we can do all the things a family takes for granted—except drink it. Poisoned by years of nearby corporate cattle farming and pesticide-laden crop growing, the groundwater is no longer healthy enough for human consumption. Agribusiness began ransacking our groundwater years ago and they haven’t been stopped by the law. So what should we do?
A new paradigm for water.
California’s agricultural and industrial policies view nature as an eternal endowment from the earth that’s given to those who can afford to ‘own’ and redistribute it for private gain. Water is increasingly exploited for economic growth rather than managed as a limited resource that’s deeply interconnected with the health and wellbeing of human communities, and of nature.
Decisions about water are made by corporate managers waving permits for extraction and pollution, who have no connection to communities and no regard for the enduring health of local ecosystems. As Maude Barlow argues, the underlying problem is that water is valued by law and culture as a convenient and profitable private commodity rather than a life-giving component of the ecosystems in which we live. This thinking has led communities to the brink of environmental bankruptcy.
We can’t afford to behave as if water scarcity can be dealt with by finding more money to buy up new sources or finance new methods of extraction, or by reallocating resources we no longer have. Our collective relationship to water is forever changed by the reality that fresh, clean water is limited. Instead, it’s time to adjust to that reality with new policies and perspectives that reflect the interdependence of people and the natural world. And that requires a paradigm shift in the ways we think about water going forward.
This larger cultural transformation begins with the writing of new rules that assert the rights of communities and nature. Nearly 200 communities across the USA have already begun to change the law to assert their right to make decisions that directly affect them, and to recognize that the ecosystems in which they live have the right to be free from pollution and degradation.
Mendocino County in California, for example, passed a community Bill of Rights in November 2014 to protect local water and to ban fracking, with organizing and legal support from Global Exchange and Movement Rights. Athens, Ohio, did the same with the help of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. The residents of Shapleigh, a town in Maine, have passed a similar rights-based ordinance to ban water privatization which opens with these words: “We the People of the Town of Shapleigh, declaring in part that we have the duty to safeguard the water both on and beneath the Earth’s surface, and in the process safeguard the rights of people within the community of Shapleigh and the rights of the ecosystems of which Shapleigh is a part.”
The message is clear: those of us who live without running water are learning not only to make do with less, but to shift our relationship with water completely. The Māori people of New Zealand have an expression that can form the basis of this new relationship—“Ko au te awa, Ko te awa ko au” which means "The river is me, I am the river.” For those living in water-rich places where the tap flows easily, this may be hard to grasp. But we need only go without a drop of water for a day to begin to appreciate the truth of this saying.
Water is life, as much a part of us and our bodies as we are part of the systems that conserve it or deplete it. So it’s time to learn a new sense of reverence for this most precious of resources. Water belongs to all of us, this ‘most basic of things.’ It’s time to start acting that way.