Tuesday, June 16, 2009

California Central Valley Farmers' Deal with the Devil

Yesterday I posted an entry about the fight between the farmers and the fish, in which I intended to also discuss the farmer's deal with the devil. However, due to various interruptions (my family expects to be fed at dinner time, as do the animals) and discursions in the text I actually wrote, I didn't do so. To be honest, I found the writing going a certain way and went with it, and as the post had gotten quite long, I thought that another post would be a more suitable way to discuss that aspect of the problem. In the meantime, alert blogger Monica of Spark a Synapse fame wrote an extensive and well-argued comment that you can read here. It was so good, and will keep me so on track that I will be using portions of it.

Monica wrote:
"Cutting off the water supply for a fish is ridiculous, I agree with that part. But the historical and political context here needs to be taken into account as well."

This is very true. As much as I would like to discuss situtations in which one party to the dispute is as pure as the driven snow, it is getting more and more difficult to find them. The farmers in question, and their predecessors are not free-market capitalists who have never taken handouts from the government. Unfortunately out of ignorance or desire to get something for nothing, as people are wont to do when they can, most Americans had made deals with the government devil.

Monica says: "There's no such thing as a free lunch. Or, there is when you deal with the feds. ;)"

Unfortunately for our California farmers, there's no such thing as a free deal with the feds, either. In fact, they have made deals with two devils, the state government (California) and the federal government. Further, they had either not read their Faust, or they forgot that the devil would come calling to collect sooner or later.

The California Aqueduct is a government project that is maintained by the California Department of Water Resources. Because it is a government-run project, rather than a private Acequia Association, demands for the water are apportioned politically, and the costs are born by the taxpayers. From it's inception to the present, the California Aqueduct, the purpose of which is to move water from the Sierras in the north to the dry Central Valley for agriculture, as well as to cities for municipal use, has given very favorable, subsidized rates to farmers and charged municipalities much higher rates, so that the taxpayers pay twice: once for the subsidies and once again for the use of their own water.

The whole issue becomes even more convoluted because the farmers, who own businesses, pay business taxes on their profits to the state, as well as personal income taxes, with the right hand, while taking the subsidies (in the form of water prices far below market value) with the left. And this is all at the state level. When the feds get involved, as they have, by delivering federal money collected from people all over the country to benefit certain sectors of the California economy.

At the same time, the federal government has taken it upon itself to control the use of water in the west, sometimes stripping older, private water associations of their water property rights and giving them carte blanche to local, state and regional governmental agencies that are more easily controlled. The private water cooperative to which Ragamuffin House belongs, and from which we purchase our water, has gone through several name changes and a number of legal maneuvers to purchase and maintain water rights because the City of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County,, through the Mid-Region Council of Governments, wants to annex our water.

(In general, water law in the Western United States can become quite complicated. The private purchase of land, for example, does not necessarily give the owner the mineral or water rights for these resources on that land. In some locations, a land-owner may be able to collect rainwater that falls on their roofs, but they may not have the groundwater rights to dig wells, for example. To further complicate things, individual states have negotiated treaties with one another about how much water they may use from their rivers that flow into or from other states. These treaties have generally been short-sighted in that they do not take into account recurring weather/climate phenomena like drought).

In California (and the rest of the West), population growth, drought and competing water usage (urban, recreational, agricultural, environmental) have predictably* come together to create the situation the Central Valley is experiencing today. And nobody who uses water is innocent in the matter of accepting government subsidies and handouts; further, individual property owners and Land Grant communities have often been forced to accept governmental authority over their older, more communitarian water arrangements, which worked quite well for the kind of small, regionally commercial farming that was traditional in these parts. (See the article about Acequias, linked above). The concerns of people who farm in small-population states, like New Mexico, are often ignored when the people of larger states, like Texas and California, appropriate property rights by force through the federal government. In New Mexico property rights disputes (including water and mineral rights) also date back to the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hildago, and are not considered resolved in the eyes of the descendents of the original settlers, who are still quite suspicious of the federal government. (For a very interesting fictional treatment of 'colonization' of Northern New Mexico by Texans, and the ensuing water 'wars', see John Nichol's novel, The Milagro-Beanfield War).

(Property deeds here include the ownership history of the land purchased; thus when I received my title search from the title company for my first home in Rio Rancho, the transactions were listed back to the original Black's Arroyo Landgrant documented by King Philip of Spain in the 1500s. The title for this house was much the same, going back to the Sedillo Land Grant in the 1600s).

So the California farmers are not innocent. At the same time, I do have more sympathy for them than Monica does, because I suspect that although they are not innocent, in some cases, they were likely forced to make deals with the devil against their better judgement in order to continue farming or hold onto their land. Some of them--especially those whose land and orchards had been in the family for generations--were likely forced to give up their ground-water rights at the point of a government gun.

There are other concerns, as well. Food security is going to become a larger issue in the United States because the productivity of farms has been squandered by nearly a century of federal meddling (going back to the New Deal), that has been destructive to the initiative and independence of American farmers. (McLean County, Illinois, where I hale from, is an exception because most of the farmers there owned their land outright before the New Deal. But Iowa was nearly destroyed by FDR's policies. My children's great-grandfather, born on an Iowa farm, and died in 2000 at the ripe old age of 110, never got over his hatred of that president and his destructive policies).

I am not sure I can forsee a good solution to these problems. Any solution is going to require painful accomodations to reality. The State of California has some of the most meddlesome and restrictive environmental regulation in the United States. It is said that the California state government even wants to determine the size of citizen's big-screen television sets. (I'm not sure if that's really a joke!). Due to repressive government and increasingly burdensome taxation, wealth is fleeing that state at an unprecendented rate, and property is becoming usalable due to unrealistic values. California is on the verge of total financial collapse.

I think it would be a good start for California to assert the 10th Amendment and get the feds out of the water picture. I am, however, very uncertain of the legalities involved. But if this could be done, then the next step would be to privatize the California Aqueduct. Perhaps with modifications for size, the Acequia and/or Water Association models would work for California. This would likely mean that farmers in the Central Valley would have to change the types of crops they grow, and how they use their water. Municipalities would also be charging more for water, and people would have to forgo frequent showers, green lawns and lush golf-courses, or pay more for these amenities (Those of us in the Inter-Mountain West have considered Californians spoiled and privileged by federal favoritism for some time; thus the ubiquitous bumper stickers: Don't Californicate _____ [name of mountain state]). Clearly, government has some role in these water issues, if only to adjudicate a process of transferring water rights into private hands and then adjudicating disputes in the future.

If water rights were in the hands of private associations, I don't think there would be any nonsense about diverting water from productive use for the (dubious) benefit of a fish.

1 comment:

Monica said...

You've been busy! Lots of reading here on water rights, thank you!

Yup, the feds have pretty much destroyed agriculture in this country. Glad to hear I'm not the only one who thinks so. There are very, very few independent farmers left that do not rely on government subsidies, price supports, etc. Food security is and will continue to be an issue so long as the USDA has a stranglehold over every farmer in the country.