You are hereARTICLE: The Water War Has Begun

ARTICLE: The Water War Has Begun


Revive the San Joaquin Executive Director Chris Acree was recently interviewed for an article in an Italian Literary magazine ‘Il Venerdi di Repubblica.’ Read on and feel free to comment on the article as it digs into the subject of drought and the water wars....




By Enrico Deaglio

Published in Italian Literary Magazine ‘Il Venerdi di Repubblica’


Every day they give you the figures: precipitation zero. Rain forecast for the week: zero. Forecast for the next three months: zero point something. This drought is not destined to end; on the contrary it will be epic, cataclysmic, a civil war among consumers, bankers, farmers, immigrant workers, and fish. And the last two categories are going to lose.

It is the first of the “the water wars” predicted as the apocalypse of the twenty-first century. But instead of un­folding in a desertified third world, between dictatorships, refugee camps and epidemics, it’s beginning in ultra-rich California, the monopolist of the entire world’s fruit and vegetable supermarkets.


Two weeks ago I was in a forsaken place called Los Banos, the epicenter of the draught. In this season, the hills should be a psychedelic green, but this year they aren’t; instead an ugly greenish gray. The lakes are dry, the earth is shiny with salt; the kayak rental shops have closed down., because you don’t paddle in sand. I stopped at a cross­roads where a huge American flag was fluttering, the flagpole crowned by a cross. It’s a storehouse for agricultural trappings {attrezzature}; the owner has filled it with signs against the “communist Obama”, deemed responsible for the crisis. Then he appears, on board a four-wheeler with a little dog and a bale of hay in the back. His name is Gary and his face betrays a kind of quiet desperation.

“Gary, what do you think should be done about this water crisis?”

“Did you see what’s on top of the flag?”

 “Sure, the cross.”

“So doesn’t it seem clear to you? It’s time for everyone to get back on their knees again and pray to the Lord because only he can save us. We have to remember that empires always end in ruin. Rome was a great empire, do you remember?”


Then Mr. Gary takes me to see his animals. He has a camel, two Watussi longhorns, a llama, a zebra. “They are my children, my therapy. I go to church and then I come back and feed them, this calms me.” Gary gives the best, the famous alfalfa, the best fodder on earth, to his children. Gary’s fields are planted in alfalfa, but if the government doesn’t find a way to deliver water, everything will dry up. Poor Gary. But who’s going to eat this fabulous fod­der? You won’t believe but it’s going to be dried, baled, and containerized; it’s going to leave in enormous con­tainer ships through the Golden Gate in San Francisco Bay, to become food for cows in China and in the Arab Emirates. For up to $300 a ton. Its export earned almost a million dollars in 2012 and the market is predicted to go up over the next fifteen years. If you give it water, alfalfa can yield a harvest almost every month. But you have to give it a lot of water, given that a thousand Gary’s of the Central Valley have planted over more than a million hectares, which will consume the equivalent of the annual flow of a huge river like the Po.


Who knows if Gary thinks about this when he kneels to pray. I suspect not. Instead he thinks that water is his right, that the government has it in its tanks, and that it would be enough to press a button for it to flow. But instead, those communists give it to the ecologists, who want to save the fish in the Sacramento River.


The battlefield of the barely initiated war will be in this plain, the Central Valley of California. A remote place, almost secret. If you say to someone in the city, “I’m going to the Central Valley”, they look at you with conster­nation: “Is someone punishing you?” You enter the valley and suddenly all the radio stations are in Spanish with either pop or religious music on the air. From north to south you encounter Stockton (in bankruptcy), Fresno (in a phase of tumultuous growth of both population and crime, on the route of the narcos, and with sixty differ­ent ethnic groups in the public schools), Bakersfield, an anonymous nothing which however harbors an under­ground secret. The whole valley is a long tube, 700 kilometers long, 80 kilometers wide, a surface comparable to that of our Po Valley. But here instead of cities, there are only infinite spreads of fields, sometimes also beautiful when the fruit trees are in flower. To the east the valley is enclosed by the Sierra Nevada chain where Yosemite Park is mounted like a jewel. To the west, before reaching the ocean and parallel to it, lies the famous Silicon Val­ley. But the two worlds don’t interact. In one valley Porsches of boy geniuses, scions of Steve Jobs, roar along, in the Central Valley most of the inhabitants are Mexican farm workers, more or less illegal, who live on the outskirts or in clots of campers. They come back from the fields and buy ten liters of water from the supermarket because the water from the tap isn’t drinkable. Unlike in Silicon Valley, there is no app to solve this.


Legend has it that this is the promised land. The soil is generous, you spit on it and a tree starts growing. The gold miners came after the Indians, who lived here for millenia, but they found no gold. Then California was a young state and didn’t mess around. The Chinese, who had built the railroads, were shunted here more or less in in con­ditions of slavery, to reclaim land from the swamps surrounding San Francisco Bay.


The Mexicans did manual work. Artichokes, broccoli, tomatoes, zucchini, cabbages. The maestro Diego Rivera depicted California as an enormous bejewelled woman who offers up her fruits and supports an exhausted Mexi­can peasant exhausted beneath the weight of an enormous basket, laden with fruit. This promised land was so mythic that the Armenian holocaust survivors came here, then millions [? thousands or millions, control] of small farmers fleeing the Dust Bowl which had plagued Oklahoma and Texas for years. (See “Grapes of Wrath” by John Stenibeck and “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” by James Agee and Walker Evans). Then the Sikhs from Punjab came, then the Hmong from Laos. The Hmong were a tribe of mountain farmers who had allied themselves with the Americans during the Vietnam war. When the communists triumphed General Vang Pao_ who was dubbed “Garibaldi” [by whom?]_took his followers to the United States and the U.S government gave land in the Central Valley to 50,000 of them.


California is about to become the queen of tomatoes, of fruit, of grapes, as cotton was king in the American south.

At the beginning of the 1960’s a small, thin Mexican farmworker appeared, Cesar Chavez, who founded the first farmworkers’ union. They marched behind the standard of the Virgin of Guadalupe and they chanted “Si, se puede”, meaning it was possible to obtain a just wage for the farmworkers. Chavez, a “Gandhian” Catholic and a vegetarian, fasted to the limit and to the detriment of his health against the use of pesticides in the vineyards. Today Chavez is a national hero, stamps bear his face, but his ideas have not prevailed. Neither in regard to the treatment of the farmworkers, nor in the fight to preserve nature by foregoing the use of pesticides. Instead the contrary seems to have prevailed. The farmworker seems to inhabit the landscape like a shadow, silhouetted by fanstasmagorical agricultural equipment, costing $500,000, which harvests, distributes, packs, crates, and loads rivers of trucks, laden with tomatoes, which seem like arteries filled with blood when viewed from the vantage point of a highway overpass.


Along state highway #5, there’s a succession of signs, “Agua! Basta Ya!, Pray to the Lord!, It’s Obama’s fault!, The government has created the crisis!”

There are also those who say that we are not descended from monkeys, that were created directly by God (a very popular opinion in this area). At the gas stations the newspaper boxes show papers with photos of scorched, cracked earth, of dry river beds, of desiccated lakes. On the front page of the Fresno Bee, a prize winning photo. Standing out against an immense sunset, the farmer Bill Henry Baker, driving his tractor, is ripping out his al­mond orchard, tree by tree. He had to choose. Baker doesn’t have enough water for everything: a thousand hec­tares have to die to save five thousand.


The God of rain, who has been implored, is far away. If you tried to look at the landscape from an airplane’s window—or wherever is closest to the vantage point of God—you’d get an idea why. Most of California’s area is a desert. The giant redwood forests have been cut down; it rains very little, and when it does it rains only in the north. However it snows at high altitudes of the Sierra Nevada, and fortunately the winter snow pack on the heights melts in the spring and feeds two mighty rivers, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin, whose conflu­ence is in the enormous estuary of the mythic Bay of San Francisco. To the south of this great estuary there’s no naturally occurring water, it has to be brought in. But humans had the boldness to build Los Angeles smack in the middle of the desert. And to make the city grow, they stole water. The idea of stealing water—rather than considering it a common, God-given good and using it frugally—was born with this challenge of a city, at the beginning of the 20th century. California was the first place in the world where man defied nature. Like good old Prometheus with fire, here there was a theft of water.

The story was titanic and tragic and violent. The largest dams in the world were built, it changed the course of rivers, first floods came, then the real desertification of the valley of Eden. Los Angeles was getting its water as the result of a crime, the one elaborated in Chinatown. Do you remember? The cynic-idealist Jack Nicholson discov­ers that John Huston is the boss-assassin of the city’s water supply and along with controlled politics, the police force, and his daughter’s fate. It was a true story. Beginning in the nineteen teens, Los Angeles became a city and then a metropolis only thanks to a monumental, private aquaduct (an undertaking equal to that of the Panama Canal) which stole water from three hundred kilometers away from the distant and immense Owens river valley. This time paradise dried up and became a desert very quickly. The small farmers tried to respond, they sabotaged and actually bombed the acquaduct but they were defeated in the end. The city won. It’s a predatory develop­ment model on which the great dams, symbols of the New Deal, were built—bulwarks of cement, vertical ca­thedrals; the rhetoric of progress accompanied the great public works. From 1946 a state aquadcut starts sucking water from the Delta and pumps it to the far south of the state, in a canal 770 kilometers long, made entirely of cement. From 1920 San Francisco started getting its water directly from Yosemite Park by constructing a dam, the Hetch-Hetchy Dam, truly a mystical lay version of a European cathedral. And it went on with monumental public works and with private initiatives, secret wells, wars over the canals and the locks, ferocious speculation in both dry and wet years. The final result was excellent for mankind: it quenched the thirst of a metropolis with 10 million inhabitants and of a valley as large as a European country which cans fruit and vegetables for the rest of the world. Is it possible that all this could come to an end?


I went to see Chris Acree a young eco-activist in Fresno. He lives in a a neighborhood with a bad reputation, as we talk we are beneath the clatter of police helicopters above us. Chris looks at his watch: “They are looking for narcos, just like they do everyday, but they’ll stop in ten minutes because if not they’ll go into overtime and the city doesn’t have money to pay for the extra gas. As he unravels anecdotes, he tells me figures, data which “simply are making everything fall apart”. The push to suck up water from the Delta destined to be pumped through the conduits brings increasingly salinated water, which has already destroyed thousands of hectares of countryside. It’s as though a train with fifty cars filled with salt arrived in the valley every day. 15,000 growers have already sold their land because it’s already too damaged. The San Joaquin River, which ships used to navigate, now has nine dams, it practically doesn’t exist and salmon can no longer make the journey back upstream to get to the ocean. He smiles: “I think we’ve lost a million salmon in twenty years.” The race to dig wells prduces sinkholes and chasms in the earth. Climate change will mean increasingly less snow on the Sierra, but if I say it, they call me a communist.

Who owns the water, I ask him. Chris laughs heartily . A little belongs to the government, a little belongs to the old families who dug wells and boast about old water rights. Agribusiness has penetrated everywhere here. They are powerful, they have every kind of subsidy. “I remember that in 2005 they had scores of stalled trains filled with tons of canned tomatoes which were about to rot. They managed to sell them to Iraq at full price.”


But above all, the water belongs to Stuart Resnick. And he tells me a story which could be a new Chinatown. Stuart Resnick, one of the top 100 millionaires according to Forbes, owns the unknown but enormous Kern Water Bank, at the edge of Bakersfield, built beneath 5,000 hectares of abandoned farmland. It’s a real and true underground city of wells, pumps, and pipelines capable of making or ruining farmers. The State built it, it was supposed to have been a kind of Fort Knox for water, but it’s not understood how at a certain point Resnick came to control 51% of the company that could sell it and take the profits. Resnick is the biggest producer in the world of almonds and pistacchios. He owns Fiji mineral water, which Obama and Hollywood stars drink (In the Fiji Islands he produces 50,000 bottles an hour, in plastic that comes from China; and the governing military junta is his creation.) He has imposed his seedless mandarin oranges, called Cuties, on the marketplace and with an unprecedented marketing plan, he sold 75 million boxes of them last year. It seems that if you don’t give Cuties to children they cry. He demanded that his competitors’s trees be covered with cloth when bees which he had “hired” by paying for them were pollinating his trees. He is a liberal, an ecologlist, contributor to the Democratic Party, a patron of the arts and of museums. “To me, water in California is synonymous with him.”


The next day I went to hear the opposing view. Stuart Woolf, one of the world’s largest producers of canned and conserved tomatoes and now also of almonds and pistacchios. We had breakfast together, before he took his airplane to fly to his 20,000 hectare ranch where a drone monitors how the harvests are going. Stuart is cultivated, likeable, intelligent and explicit. He tells me that his tomatoes are responsible for a fifth of the ketchup Americans consume, and the numbers are growing. That we Italians are a bit deceitful because in our Made-in Italy canned tomatoes we put a tomato paste full of carrots made in China. That almonds are the future of the world. (“A propos, we finance research centers—we’ve fronted 42 million dollars—and we’ve discovered that almonds are good in almost every respect: cholesterol, Omega 3, anti-oxidents, and they reduce swelling of the prostate. Espe­cially if the almonds are taken by mouth”) Stuart explanined to me that organic agriculture, Slow Food and all the rest are nonsense. That this drought is a blessing because it will squeeze out all the growers who don’t know how to stay in the market. Water? “I have my wells, I’ve paid for them, and the government should keep its nose out of it. But it’s clear that it’s not sustainable. Yesterday I heard about an auction where someone paid $6,000 to buy water to irrigate a hectare of land. We put fruit and vegetables on the table of the entire world, we feed the world. I don’t believe that if salmon are no longer going upstream on the San Joaquin that it’s our fault.” He seemed well equipped for the future.


This is how I saw the ex Garden of Eden, on the eve of the cataclsym. Some prayed, others speculated. There was tv footage of Mexican laborers demonstrating” “Agua! Agua! Job! Food!” There were a lot of them: they got down on their knees and prayed to God. Then they chanted “Turn on the pumps! Turn on the pumps!” One who was interviewed said, “They are giving water to fish and not to us. But fish don’t vote.” Stuart Woolf, the boss, empha­sizd this movement. “It’s fantastic, it’s for human dignity”. Chris had smiled: “He’s paying their day wages while they demonstrate.”


The water war has begun. God, although invoked, is absent. In a little while, ecologists and the great capitalists of agribusiness will come to blows, at least politically. Maybe the price of almonds and mandarin oranges will go up.


And you, whose side are you on? I want to know if you are for public water and for the Slow Food movement, Eataly and Oscar Farinetti. By the way, we are the people who have witnessed the rare and exceptional flower­ing of the almond tree in Sicily, who grow the prized Bronte pistacchio which grows only on the slopes of Etna volcano (and Iran), and who invented tomato paste. If Californian agribusiness loses, little Italy could win.



Revive the San Joaquin News

Receive periodic updates and event announcements.