Playing Dirty in the War for Water


I am a farmer’s daughter. I grew up checking sprinklers and changing irrigation with my dad in a pair of muddy boots. The experience afforded me an intimate awareness of the importance of having affordable water to nourish one’s crops. My family still farms in California, and as my last name indicates, our heritage is Hispanic. Which is why I find this story especially upsetting.

With poignant slogans and gripping imagery, an organization called “El Agua Es Asunto de Todos”—Water is Everybody’s Business—has demanded more water for the San Joaquin Valley. In video testimonials on the group’s website, Hispanic community members share stories of the valley’s once-productive fields as well as the suffering they experience now from lack of work. They discuss school closures, poverty, and loss of homes. The organization’s website reads: “No water. No work. No economy,” and, “Water is the key to our future. And the future is in our hands.”

The group’s message is a valid one. Without water there are no fields and therefore fewer jobs. But its message also strikes me as disingenuous. While El Agua operates under the guise of a grassroots Latino community effort, as the New York Times reported in December, it is funded entirely by Westlands Water District.

To be clear, nowhere on El Agua’s website could I find mention that the organization is bankrolled by Westlands. Nor could I find any statistic or reference to water availability and usage. Instead, its pages are filled with emotionally charged language and victimized pleas. “It’s a disaster,” one testimonial reads. “We’re going to lose everything we have.” But the fact is, that the group’s participants—presumably innocent, well-meaning people—are being played. And their heart-wrenching village campaign is, in reality, a thirsty wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Westlands Water District is not your average water district. According to the New York Times article, it supports about 600 large-scale farmers within a 600,000-acre stretch of land in California’s San Joaquin Valley. As the Times reports, it’s a $100 million-a-year agency and a powerful political force, with a litigious past and five lobbying firms under contract in Washington and Sacramento, all with one objective: to get its hands on inexpensive water.

The New York Times reports that for decades a federal water management organization called the Central Valley Project offered farmers in California’s San Joaquin Valley an abundance of affordable water that it gathered in northern California and piped south via 500 miles of canals. Farmers within the district received a triple subsidy—cheap water, USDA crop subsidies, and below-market electricity. However, in the 1970s, the State Water Project created a second canal system and diverted some of the same water from the northern Californian source rivers.

As you can imagine, devastating environmental problems emerged. Commercial salmon fisheries collapsed. At the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, fish populations declined dramatically. Congress’s solution was a law reserving at least a minimum amount of water for wildlife. Not surprisingly, it hit a nerve with farmers in the San Joaquin Valley. El Agua represents one facet of Westlands’ many efforts to access more federal water.

Since then, Westlands has lobbied for new reservoirs to augment Central Valley Project reserves, according the New York Times. It has pleaded that water scarcity will ruin the lives of the district’s Latino population. Purchasing water at inflated prices from other sources would reduce agricultural profits and threaten farmers’ bottom line with ruinous results. The New York Times reports that Westlands is currently working to persuade Congress to loosen the rules that set aside Sacramento basin water for fisheries. And it will stop at nothing to get the federal tap turned back on.

In a heartfelt message on El Agua’s website, general director Martha Elvia Rosas writes, “When we suffer water restrictions, all of us are affected. However the Hispanic community is especially vulnerable. We lose our jobs and our businesses. Furthermore, we lose educational opportunities for our children and, in general, our entire future is put at risk.” This statement, while partially true, leaves out the fact that Westlands has the power to change the current circumstances, or any role in the issue’s resolution for that matter.

El agua es absolutamente asunto de todos. I couldn’t agree more. Water rights are indeed everyone’s business. And I wholeheartedly support an honest discussion of facts between farmers, politicians, and the Hispanic community. But manipulative tactics and self-serving slogans? That just seems sinister.

I welcome your thoughts. WE_bug_web

  • Jonathan McClelland.

    It’s time for Westlands W.D. and all the rest of those who call the San Joaquin Valley their home to face the cold, hard, and mostly dry facts. Almonds, cotton, and alfalfa are not appropriate crops for a region that is dry in the peak growing season. Neither is inefficient irrigation systems such as flood or highly evaporative overhead sprinklers. Neither is over drafting groundwater, which is starkly evident by radical drops in land surface. Where do you think that land went? It’s filling the vacated pores in the aquifer so that it cannot properly be recharged. I’m not saying that you can’t have a productive agricultural future for the area, but it must be carefully thought out to maximize a sustainable allocation of water. That’s not going to come from a Shasta Dam raise, Temperance Flat Dam, or Sites Off-Stream Reservoir. Those projects combined would only add less than 1% to Ca.’s water supply in a wet year, and zero in a drought, and they would exacerbate the continued decline of salmonids which are already threatened, endangered, or extinct (depending on specific species and location).
    It’s time to apply common sense, not fuzzy math.

    • Laura S.

      You make excellent points. I appreciate your perspective and wholeheartedly agree that careful planning and sustainable, environmentally responsible water allocations are needed.


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