Will public water infrastructure delays ruin the Golden State?

Light sandy loam, no rain

Water wells are going dry in California, especially in small towns in the Central Valley. In one documentary residents of Porterville reported their wells running dry in 2015.  Another media byte exposes emptying water wells in Cambria. For the sake of tourism and upkeep of high property values along the coast, the water shortages are often downplayed.

In fact, all during Governor Jerry Brown’s administration during the 2010s while appearing to address the drought crisis and enacting water rationing, those same rules never applied to the fossil-fuel industry. Brown made sure of that; he favored the gas and oil industry. The State permitted accelerating hydraulic-fracturing in Kern County, and exploration for well plays in the oil-rich but rocky inclines of the Monterey Formation, which extends from Coalinga west towards the coast including sections in Monterey, Santa Barbara, and Los Angeles.

From Frackopoly by Food & Water Watch founder Wenonah Hauter:

Democratic governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 4, giving the green light to fracking in the chronically water-stressed state. Brown declared a state of emergency in January 2014 and begged Californians to voluntarily conserve water. By mid-July 2014 the statewide drought had become so serious that restrictions on the outdoor use of water were mandatory, with fines for offenders. By April 2015, the governor ordered more extensive mandatory water restrictions, requiring that urban demand be slashed by 25 percent—-but the oil industry’s use of water was left untouched.” —-Wenonah Hauter, Frackopoly

While rural residents and farmers reliant on state and irrigation district water deliveries receive no water but are forced to pay out of pocket to drill their groundwater wells deeper, the fossil fuel industry is given the green-light for fast-tracked federal and state permits, and allowed special water rights. When they end up polluting water wells, no one notices.

“[D]uring the drought, some companies were selling treated fracking wastewater—which still has been found to contain contaminants in some cases—as irrigation water for farms in California’s Central Valley, although no one knows whether this wastewater is potentially contaminating the food that is grown there.”

It has since been shown that much of the excess fracking water flushed back into wells are not certified, and that the mix of chemicals collected by scientists and tested in labs have shown many toxins blended together that cannot easily be removed by standard wastewater treatment methods. Researchers have had to collect air and water samples covertly, independently test them, and prepare their own reports, due to the undue influence which corporations have on the direction of research at universities in the United States.

The evidence that fracking water is being reused again for farm irrigation, disposed of near fragile aquifers, with disposal wells’ contaminants reaching potable strata is growing, yet, per the federal regulations, such as the Halliburton Loophole, nothing is required under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Ominously enough, a situation is developing where greywater, recycled water, and irrigation waters can be confuted to include toxic fracking injection-well flush water. This will greatly compound the problems of water quality already increasing when groundwater wells are excessively deep and when public surface water reservoirs begin bottoming out. Already there are plenty of YouTube videos showing Lake Mead’s increasingly exposed bottom including old boats, human skeletons, and trash improperly disposed of.

Should the southwestern United States really be suffering from a 1200-year drought event as some hydrologists claim, the scale of drought will eclipse that from during the Anasazi Indian period (1100-1300 AD). Much has been written about these mysterious people who once created verdure farming villages in the high mountain region of northern Arizona, but who dispersed after 1300 AD.

Must this happen again? Certainly, if our leaders only care about hoarding money and waging wars, the poor people will easily slide into anomie or hate-mongering.

According to Floods, Famines and Emperors by Brian Fagan, it was the drought-flood cycle that broke the Moche state between 600 and 700 AD in modern-day Peru. In this period the Moche lords reigned in all their glory over the peasant farmers and fisherfolk. To win their idolotry, the lords, much as in pharoaic Egypt, created a religious warrier-priest caste of elites who claimed to be able to control the stars, the sun, the moon, and also the amount of rain. Fagan recreates their society from archaeologic digs, geologic records, and ice-cores:

“The warrior-priests lived in a world of their own, far from the daily work in the irrigated fields beneath their magnificant pyramids. As far as we can tell, their lives revolved around warfare, ritual, and diplomacy, in an endless cycle of competition for prestige with their fellow leaders. Each river valley had one or two royal courts, all of them connected by ties of kin and mutual obligation. Judging from royal graves, each warrior-priest wore the same insignia and ceremonial trappings. Moche lords went to war over land and water supplies. Painted Moche pots show vivid scenes of armies fighting with raised clubs and feather-decked shields. Other paintings depict naked prisoners of war paraded before the warrior-priest dressed in his full ceremonial regalia. At a signal, the executioners decapitated the captives or strangled them. As victims choked to death, their penises sometimes became erect in a potent symbol of human fertility. This act of sacrifice in the presence of the warrior-priest validated lordly power over human life. The arrogant Moche lords were the intermediaries between the living and the forces of the spiritual world that could wreak awful havoc on their coastal homeland.”

Control over life and death, liberty and property, religious practice, and most importantly over all resources was how the authoritarian Moche leaders ruled over their population.

“The lords of Sipan ruled over a portion of the Lambayeque Valley around AD 400, soon after political power had shifted northward. Moche society apparently prospered until the mid-sixth century’s severe drought cycle. At this time the Moche lords lived downstream, as close to the Pacific as to the mountains so they could control both water and fisheries. Their power depended on their ability to exercise strict supervision over all food supplies, over every load of fish meal, dried seaweed, and cotton that traveled to the distant highlands. Above all, they watched the life-giving rivers with sedulous care.”

Developing the best irrigation system the Western hemisphere had to offer, carefully divvying up the water between fields, ponds, and canals over great distances, maintaining the channels, and studying ways to control streams and harness mountain runoff, the Moche were still ultimately destroyed after years of drought culminating with El Nino.

“The Moche lords sat at the pinnacle of a state in crisis, their palaces and pyramids ravaged by raging floodwaters. Hedged in by centuries of religious idealogy that rationalized their supreme power, they lived apart from their subjects. Unlike European monarchs, who passed their wealth and power to their descendants, the Moche rulers took their rich possessions to the grave, so their successors had to commission new ornaments and opulent clothing from the royal artisans clustered near their palaces. Continuity came not from wealth but from a lord’s ability to command the loyalty of his subjects and thus to control agriculture, trade, and water supplies. The El Nino-caused disaster at Cerro Blanco undermined the confidence of generations.”

The floods and famine which resulted meant that those peasants with any means migrated northwards, perhaps to today’s Ecuador. For sure the Moche nobility, who already lived separately from the farmers and the fisherfolk, only cared about the safety of their families, kinfolk, and those considered worthy for intermarrying. They relocated far upstream from the coast to ensure an adequate water supply for themselves, to control the water supplies, and to build fortifications where they could defend themselves from their neighbors. Meanwhile those least fortunate struggled with encroaching tides and shifting sand dunes.

Is this the fate for the Central Valley? According to various pundits, such as Robert Rubinstein, Chairman of TBLI group, Wall Street looks forward to the monetization of water. In a news panel at Al Jazeera’s Inside Story (“What can be done to stop global water scarcity?”), he maintains that water must be priced to meet demand, and that until that is done, the unfairness will persist. However for centuries the United States has built public infrastructure at essentially no cost to the consumer. All of the federal and state water projects delivered water for little to no cost to farmers and residents. This is why Bart Hilhorst, a water resources management expert, maintains that the real problem is building in enough infrastructure to capture and share more water:

“At the moment there is water scarcity, but it’s not because we don’t have enough water. The reason we have problems is because we’re not using our water in an efficient way.”

In response to a followup question by moderator Sami Zeidan on the world population increases and the alarming demand, Hilhorst explains:

“Drought occurs—-or the problems we have with drought. It’s because in many areas of the world we have rainfall and it just runs off without us making use of it. If we can store this water and make more productive use of it, I think we can come a long way in solving, I would say, all the problems.” —-Bart Hilhorst, Water Resources Management expert

In fact, combatting the current long-term drought in California means that conservation of water must go hand-in-hand with state emergency public infrastructure development. Yet in California, the Delta Water Conveyance Tunnels proposal has been batted back and forth between environmentalists, engineers, and planners for decades. Back during the Brown reign, the twin tunnels were just about ready for approval, but once Governor Newsome came into office, he cancelled the project and sent it back for review.

Presently the EIR (Environmental Impact Report) PDF is downloadable for public review and comment until October 27, 2022 at the State Water Resources Board website. According to the latest proposal, Governor Newsome favors constructing only one tunnel conveying 3000 cubic feet per second, which is half the size of the previous favored alternative. From an engineering standpoint, it would be incredibly shortsighted to spend billions of dollars in tunneling and boring construction for only one pipe; furthermore, should this pipe fail for any reason, whether due to earthquakes, required maintenance, obstruction, parts replacement, or from stress, there will be inadequate flow throughout the system from a shut-down.

Already there are litigants hoping to put forth their disputations for delay, perhaps hoping the project is rerouted yet again. The 2022 EIR contains nine feasible water tunnel options based on three route layouts (east, central, and west alignments). However the City of Stockton, based on an environmentalist consultant report, is asserting that the best plan for restoring native fish habitat will be a “West Delta Intakes Concept.” Putting the intakes much further west in the tidal marsh, the environmentalists believe the pipes can receive more flow in a modulating way that accommodates migrating fish. The trouble which they do not foresee might come from a rising tide (estimated at up to 18 feet of sea level rise) along with saltwater intrusions, and having to further remove salt from the water, treat pipes against corrosion, and deal with difficulties stemming from inconsistent flows.

The debate has become quite exasperating for some officials, such as Darcy Burke, Elsinore Water District president, who in an interview with California Insider stated:

“You know you mention Prop 1 and you think about it. Safe drinking water. Safe drinking water. That’s a human basic life. We’ve spent three times what we invested in safe drinking water on environmental improvements whether its parks or conservancies or any type of estuary enhancement. Three times. Meanwhile we have systems all over the state that have impoverished neighborhoods that don’t have clean safe drinking water. Where’s our priorities?”

In order to build the public water infrastructure California needs without having to descend to the level of Pakistan’s “water tank mafias” with exorbitant water prices, the state must declare a national emergency and prioritize the “human species” over any “native species of fish,” especially since even the U.C. Davis Center for Watershed Sciences agrees that in the long run, this is a losing battle, that the native fish are not likely to come back due to predator fish, broken runs, disjointed systems, and the cost of trucking fish from one site to another.

Furthermore, while water conservation has reduced per capita usage, the same rules need to apply to the fossil fuel industry. Fracking wastes huge quantities of water and creates unaccountable quantities of pollutants which are emitted or are unsafely disposed of. According to Oil Change International, the California fracking industry uses and disposes of hundreds of millions of gallons of water. State officials record that in 2014 alone, the fracking industry used at least 70 million gallons of water.

Flexibility in governance with proper matter of scale is an art that enduring ancient civilizations understand, but which the State of California apparently does not. The drought problem is now complicated by a federal government sanguinely pursuing the Green New Deal ideology but especially in ways that maximize capitalist greenwashing profits over any authentic localized community priorities. Just to maintain the illusion of number one, the American media is continually censoring any negative news stories such as on the drought, wildfire, homelessness, drug use, underemployment, deaths from vaccines, protests, and the threat of prolonged war in Ukraine. Very few Americans know that the United States has even sold off its strategic grain reserves and its oil reserves, just to maintain the illusion of control over inflation—which began increasing soon after the war in Ukraine started.