Thanks to my new friend Geoff Vanden Heuvel, I attended a meeting in Hanford last Wednesday evening about groundwater. It was a public workshop held by the State Water Resources Control Board staff to discuss the pending process of putting the Tulare Lake Subbasin on probation until the inadequacies of its groundwater management plan are remedied. If that sounds portentous, then you are in sync with the hundred or so people who came out to attend.
I don’t know about you, but I have come to love being in a room with a lot of farmers. It’s grounding, for one thing, and an experience of civility and human respect even when they are most threatened. Most farmers, by which I mean real farmers, are consistently more polite than I am, which helps me remember my manners. I owe them, and not just for the food I have in my refrigerator. If more of us had the discipline and knowledge it takes to keep them getting up in the morning even when prospects are bad, we would have less to fear as a country.
They are, for the most part, also models of what it takes to be a good neighbor. After the State Water Board staff had finished their presentations, there was a Q&A period (which drew two people to the microphone) and a public comment period, where almost 20 people stood up to voice their concerns. About half were people who farm and/or serve irrigation districts in the neighboring subbasins, the Kaweah and Tule subbasins particularly. They said they came to support the Tulare Lake subbasin growers, even as they were also scoping out what may lie ahead for their GSAs in the coming months.
Many speakers thanked the board for coming all the way down here from Sacramento and presenting the information, despite its weighty impact. A few people were less than reverent in their fear of being put out of business. Some raised important questions, challenging the sole responsibility of the Tulare Lake subbasin in the larger crisis of groundwater overdraft and the serious problem of land subsidence it has caused. And several commenters noticed there was an elephant in the room and gave it a name.
It turns out, of course, there was a small herd of elephants in the room. There was the fact that the state’s current overdependence on groundwater is the result of our population explosion of 40 million people, an unsupportable increase from 6 decades ago when our most recent surface water projects were designed. There was the myopic image of water wasting into the ocean when it could be irrigating crops for the state’s people to eat, a charge California’s farmers have been leveling since the first irrigation congress in the 1880s. And there was the mythic problem statement of conspiracy, that this SGMA process is just another method on the globalist leftist agenda to get rid of farmers—which it may accomplish, in fact, whether or not that is the intent. By the time they’d finished speaking, the elephants’ footprints were noticeable.
But no one mentioned the 800-pound gorilla sitting at the back of the room by himself. Kings County supervisor Doug Verboon pointed to him verbally but without name or blame. Others made reference to difficulties obtaining well data and subsidence information, data holes that correspond to the areas on the maps in which King Kong reigns. No one mentioned the real possibility that if the lakebed were no longer being farmed by our distant, remote brother, the groundwater overdraft would cease, as would the subsidence, most likely. During the floods this spring we learned that this gorilla protects his own banana trees and does not consider how his eating habits hurt his neighbors or the neighborhood. Despite his reputation for being a good neighbor, he is not.
The problem is not so much this gorilla’s moral frame as it is the immoral, almost-religious belief in unregulated economic competition. It reminds me of the story of the scorpion and the frog. The scorpion nicely asks the frog for a ride across the river on the frog’s back. The frog says sure, as long as you don’t sting me. The scorpion says of course. Then when they get to the opposite bank, the scorpion stings the frog, who says (as he is dying,) why’d you do that? Because I’m a scorpion, he says. That’s what scorpions do.
We can’t take away this gorilla’s banana plantation, but we don’t have to let him trample the groundwater process. There’s a legal crack I mentioned several weeks ago, and for the good of the neighbors and the neighborhood, we need to put our pry bar into that crack and push.
Trudy Wischemann is a natural-born water baby who writes. You can send her your groundwater thoughts, reverent or otherwise, 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 the Mid Valley Times newspaper.