“Everyone has a right to water,” my neighbor said, leaning on his rake. “Without it, we die.” “And a right to land,” I added, watching a cloud cross his face. “Gotta have a place to stand,” I said, looking down at my two feet, rake also in hand. He nodded, granting me that.
The first time I heard the claim that everyone has a right to clean drinking water, I felt annoyed. I believe that is every bit as true as the claim that everyone has a right to fresh food and a place to lay their heads, which I believe deeply. What is confounding to me is how to imagine fulfilling those rights, given the near-monopoly control over land, water and food held by our corporations, without challenging that control. Without challenging the profit motive and empire-building tendencies so rampant in our society, driving that “need” to control.
It seems to me that, at least here, it’s the control over water that gives these corporations control over food and shelter as well. Still rereading “The King of California,” (2003) I’ve become a bit daunted by the myriad ways the Boswell Company under J.G.’s direction wrangled the federal and state governments to provide them with all the water they needed. I thought I knew the story well, but there were huge gaps in my version. Arax and Wartzman, the authors, named names and pointed fingers into dark corners where no one saw at the time just what a crime was being committed in the name of corporate prosperity. The costs to ordinary people outside the company were never counted; when outsiders spoke up, they were persecuted.
The worst part is that the Boswell empire was only a continuance of ag empires built in the late 1800s, except that it was in the lakebed instead of the riparian zones of the Kern, Kings and San Joaquin Rivers. Reviewing this history in Norris Hundley’s remarkable book, “The Great Thirst” (1992) only dampened further my hope for another way, a more equitable prospect for living in this valley. “Will the poor always be with us?” people sometimes ask, thinking biblically. I want to cry out instead “Will the rich always be with us?”
The universal human right to water has become a new awareness in some sense. It’s an integral part of a call for social justice that has risen as horrible water quality and dried-up wells in some of the poorer communities in our valley became news during the drought. The flooding of some of those same communities this spring only adds to the reality of water inequalities across our population. It seems that scarcities, whether in water supply or adequate flood control, land or decent air quality, are always borne by the poor.
How to address this inequity is the question. Much can be done to improve poor rural community water supplies and improve flood protection with public monies and charitable efforts. The same can be (and is being) said about housing and food. But as long as the great disparity in wealth continues to exist, as long as the really, really wealthy continue to call the shots, especially on water, there will be no truly equitable condition among our population.
Both approaches have been tried in this state since its inception, particularly in our agricultural regions. Pulling up our compassion, assisting the poor has always been more attractive than challenging the rich, which requires us to find courage we might not feel and inevitably has repercussions. As Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara once said, “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist.”
If monolithic power over water—i.e., monopoly, whether by a private interests or government—was somehow natural or efficient or effective in producing some overall human good, perhaps we could excuse ourselves from worrying further about it. But if everyone is to have access to clean drinking water, the Powers’ water control must be challenged. Being afraid of being called a communist is no excuse.
Trudy Wischemann is an agrarian thinker who writes. You can send her your ideas about water equity c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247.
This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Mid Valley Times newspaper.