California Water Wars: Another Form of Asset Stripping?

by Ellen Brown, Washington’s Blog

In California’s epic drought, wars over water rights continue, while innovative alternatives for increasing the available water supply go untapped.

Wars over California’s limited water supply have been going on for at least a century. Water wars have been the subject of some vintage movies, including the 1958 hit The Big Country starring Gregory Peck, Clint Eastwood’s 1985 Pale Rider, 1995’s Waterworld with Kevin Costner, and the 2005 film Batman Begins. Most acclaimed was the 1975 Academy Award winner Chinatown with Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, involving a plot between a corrupt Los Angeles politician and land speculators to fabricate the 1937 drought in order to force farmers to sell their land at low prices. The plot was rooted in historical fact, reflecting battles between Owens Valley farmers and Los Angeles urbanites over water rights.

Today the water wars continue on a larger scale with new players. It’s no longer just the farmers against the ranchers or the urbanites. It’s the people against the new “water barons”  – Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Monsanto, the Bush family, and their ilk – who are buying up water all over the world at an unprecedented pace.

A Drought of Epic Proportions

At a news conference on March 19, 2015, California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon warned, “There is no greater crisis facing our state today than our lack of water.”

Jay Famiglietti, a scientist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, California, wrote in the Los Angeles Times on March 12th:

Right now the state has only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs, and our strategic backup supply, groundwater, is rapidly disappearing. California has no contingency plan for a persistent drought like this one (let alone a 20-plus-year mega-drought), except, apparently, staying in emergency mode and praying for rain.

Maps indicate that the areas of California hardest hit by the mega-drought are those that grow a large percentage of America’s food. California supplies 50% of the nation’s food and more organic food than any other state. Western Growers estimates that last year 500,000 acres of farmland were left unplanted, an amount that could increase by 40% this year. The trade group pegs farm job losses at 17,000 last year and more in 2015.

Farmers with contracts from the Central Valley Project, a large federal irrigation system, will receive no water for the second consecutive year, according to preliminary forecasts. Cities and industries will get 25 percent of their full contract allocation, to ensure sufficient water for human health and safety. Besides shortages, there is the problem of toxic waste dumped into water supplies by oil company fracking. Economists estimate the cost of the drought in 2014 at $2.2 billion.

No Contingency Plan

The massive Delta water tunnel project, designed to fix Southern California’s water supply problems by siphoning water from the north, was delayed last August due to complaints from Delta residents and landowners. The project remains stalled, as the California Department of Water Resources reviews some 30,000 comments. When or if the project is finally implemented, it will take years to complete, at an estimated cost of about $60 billion including financing costs.

Meanwhile, alternatives for increasing the water supply rather than fighting over limited groundwater resources are not being pursued. Why not? Skeptical observers note that water is being called the next commodity boom. Christina Sarich, writing on NationOfChange.org, asserts:

Numerous companies are poised to take advantage of the water crisis. Instead of protecting existing water supplies, implementing stricter regulations, and coming up with novel ways to capture rainwater, or desalinizing seawater, the corporate agenda is ready, like a snake coiled, to make trillions off your thirst.

These coiled snakes include Monsanto and other biotech companies, which are developing drought-resistant and aluminum-resistant seeds set to take over when the organic farmers throw in the towel. Organic dairy farmers and ranchers have been the hardest hit by the drought, since the certified organic pasture on which their cows must be fed is dwindling fast.

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