The Great Thirst & The North Coast

Posted By Will Parrish On September 7, 2011

Capital is mired in its greatest slump since the 1930s. The ecological fabric that sustains life throughout much of the world is being brutally eradicated; around 200 species go extinct every day, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. In a saner system, these dire circumstances might lead those who steer the ship of state to try heading in a dramatically different direction.

Instead, we get news like the following: On August 11, the administrations of California Governor Jerry Brown and US President Barack Obama issued a joint statement touting an “aggressive schedule” to move ahead with that monument to destruction and folly known as the California peripheral canal, a multi-billion plan to export more of Northern California’s water to Southern California’s corporate agribusinesses and water agencies, which had previously been a pet project of the Schwarzenegger administration.

The enormous concrete structure would divert the Blue Gold from the Sacramento River around the periphery of the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta. From there, it would enter the largest network of water storage and transfer systems ever engineered: the already existing water infrastructure, that is, the water infrastructure of the State of California. This system of dams, reservoirs, powerplants, pumping plants, canals, aqueducts, siphons, tunnels, gates, and other water control structures would convey the new influx of water from Northern to Central and Southern California, including San Francisco Bay Area water providers like Santa Clara Valley Water District.

Washington Group International, a subsidiary of the enormous construction company URS Corporation that is significantly responsible for the current wealth wielded by Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s billionaire husband, Richard Blum [1], estimated the project would cost a little over $3 billion to construct. Other estimates have placed the figure as high as $17 billion. If recent trends in government-contracted project overruns are any guide, the latter seems like a far safer bet. The plan is likely to come before California voters as a ballot measure in November 2012.

To a significant degree, political and economic power in the American West have always derived from the control of water. One masterful account of this phenomenon was provided by eminent historian Donald Worster in his book Rivers of Empire. It was on the strength of massive government investments in water infrastructure, Worster contends, that all the cities and farms, money and power of the American West arose from what is primarily an arid desert region.

In casting aridity as the defining trait even of places as ecologically varied as California, Worster overreaches. This state’s preeminent position in the world political economy — as of this writing, it has a larger GDP than all but seven countries — has far more to do with abundance than scarcity. The forests, fishing stocks, minerals, and ores, and other natural riches of the state were initially the foundation of its economic success, paving the way for the aerospace, high-tech, entertainment, real estate, finance, and agribusiness sectors that dominate the state today.

Still, if you take seriously Worster’s basic conclusions about the importance of water to the fabric of California’s politics and economy, it should come as no surprise that California’s unparalleled water infrastructure is a primary reason for its also unparalleled budget crisis. In a recent expose published on their web site, entitled “Budgets, Billionaires, Bonds, Big Profits and the Brown Family,” long-time Central Valley reporters Patrick Porgans and Lloyd Carter analyzed the impact that obligations on past bonds has had on California’s budget, finding that payments on their interest and principal is a crushing $10 billion a year.

They note,

“A few of California’s land rich billionaires — whose wealth, ultimately, depends on water — have had a significant role in using the ‘system’ (tax-base revenue, credit rating, and natural resources) to promote and support issuances of tens of billions of dollars of General Obligation (GO) bonds to fund vested interest public works projects, particularly water and water-related grant programs which considerably enhance the value of their land. And the grant money, often used to build local water district infrastructure and help fund developers, is free. At the same time, they are having the public pay to increase their water supply, and are selling this water back to the public at astronomically high prices.”

Further on, they write that California’s “total water-related public debt [is] at least $32.4 billion; comparatively speaking, it represents about 40% of the cost to run the state General Fund programs.”

In other words, California taxpayers are annually paying down debt on the loans that built California’s vast water infrastructure, which exists primarily to benefit wealthy real estate executives and agribusiness barons, who pay relatively little for this infrastructure’s upkeep.

And, in another juicy passage, they note that recent “op-ed articles in the state’s major newspapers by promoters of the 2012 water bond measure, currently estimated at about $11 billion, do not say that it will actually cost $22 billion to pay off the bond. Nor do they say that even more cuts in education, public safety and social programs for the disabled (now financed from the state’s General Fund) will occur so that big growers in the western San Joaquin Valley can keep irrigating and billionaire real estate barons can continue to grow subdivisions in the Southern California deserts with Northern California water. Taxpayers will remain in bondage to bonds for decades.”

Of all the water infrastructure projects so far undertaken in the American West, the California State Water Project approved by Jerry Brown’s father, Pat, in the 1960s was by far the most consequential. This single bond-funded project comprises an overwhelming portion of California’s aforementioned enormous water transfer and storage infrastructure, including six power plants, 22 dams and reservoirs, six major aqueduct systems, and 23 pumping plants. At the Edmonston pumping plant next to the Tehachapi Mountains, a greater volume of water is lifted higher than anywhere in the world.

As a result, the State Water Project is the largest single user of electricity in California. In the process of delivering water from the San Francisco Bay-Delta to Southern California, it uses a whopping 2-3% of all electricity consumed in the state.

In keeping with Worster’s thesis, the State Water Project has had an impact even beyond the immediately impacted areas of the Central Valley and Southern California’s vast desert regions. One of its outcomes was to create virtually free water for a group of landed agribusiness elites in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Here in the North Coast, the dry-farmed Gravensteins, Jonathans, and Delicious apples of Western Sonoma County and the other apple farms in places like the Anderson Valley could no longer compete with irrigated plantations set up on the fringes of the Central Valley. It was about this time that Washington State built its irrigation infrastructure around the Yakima Valley and Wenatchee River.

With the long, steady process whereby this region’s fruit farms have been priced out of existence thus underway, the premium wine industry began to reemerge here.

Ironically, as we’ve chronicled at length in the Anderson Valley Advertiser [2], this trend led to a massive new demand on the region’s rivers and streams. One of the first to implement new irrigation techniques in vineyards on a truly large scale was Rodney Strong of the eponymous wine label, who grew to be the largest owner of wine-grape acreage in the Russian River basin in the late 60s through the 70s. As he bought up the failing apple and prune orchards, Strong’s business had started to boom,

In a University of California oral history, he recalled the first drought that kicked in after these new water-intensive methods were in place: “The water level was dropping. When you really need water is in the springtime; you need it for frost protection. You need fifty gallons per minute per acre, and that’s a horrendous number if you put a pencil to it.”

It is indeed a horrendous number. Strong’s 5,000 acres alone needed 250,000 gallons a minute on frigid nights in the spring-time. The advent of irrigated wine plantations has significantly hastened the decline of the North Coast’s river ecosystems. With some of these rivers’ hallmark species having become endangered, and with fish killings resulting from Big Wine’s Big Thirst impossible to ignore any longer, the National Marine Fisheries Service has finally moved in recent years to implement regulations on the wine industry’s water usage.

In the coming weeks, I will provide an account here in the AVA of the present state of the North Coast’s watersheds, its water transfer and storage system (namely, the Potter Valley Project), the historical context for the present state of affairs, and how all of these things relate to California’s proposed peripheral canal. If water is central to the fabric of the California political economy, as Donald Worster and others have illustrated, it stands to reason that the overall course of water politics in California would dramatically impact the culture, politics, and economy of the North Coast.

Will Parrish can be reached at wparrish[at]

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