Monday, February 3, 2014

1302. California’s Water Wars: 2014-2030

By Craig Collins, February 2, 2014
Craig Collins

The following article is a work of political future-fiction commonly known as back-casting.  Looking back from 2030, it tries to imagine, as realistically as possible, how climate change, drought and peak oil might shape California’s conflict over water in the coming decades.  It chronicles the battle between those who connive to gain private control over California’s shrinking water supply and those who hope to keep this vital resource in public hands to be used in a more equitable and sustainable manner.

It’s 2030.  California is drying up and looking more like Nevada every day.  Climate change has imposed a relentless dry spell over most of the state.  This perpetual water crisis has forced the state to reluctantly retreat from the 20th century's high-handed hubris toward water.  That wasteful, shortsighted approach spurned conservation.  Instead, water scarcity was treated as a mere supply problem, to be solved by ingenious feats of hydraulic engineering.

The southern part of the state has always been dry.  But in past centuries Sierra snowmelt kept rivers running year round and replenished over drawn Central Valley aquifers, while rainfall drenched the North most of the year.  Back then the state used its bountiful petroleum reserves to erect a vast hydraulic infrastructure to deliver water to the vast, bone-dry corporate farms of the Westlands in the southern San Joaquin Valley and the thirsty urban sprawl of the LA basin.  Dams, canals, aqueducts, reservoirs, pumps, levees, irrigation ditches and sewers drained and diverted distant watersheds, generated electricity and transported water and electricity hundreds of miles through deserts and over mountains.

But now, three decades into the 21st century, the energy and fresh water reserves of the state, and the entire Southwest, are dangerously depleted.  Without cheap, abundant water and energy, the state’s economy has failed to grow for over a decade.  And California isn’t alone.  The worldwide globalization bubble burst when China’s economy tanked in 2019.  For years now, politicians and pundits have avoided the term "economic growth" altogether because it reminds everyone of the empty promises and unfulfilled expectations of a time, not long ago, when each new generation could expect to live better than their parents.

Since falling off the peak oil plateau back in 2015, globalization has been strangled by energy shortages and extreme climate calamities caused by our addiction to mainlining the Earth’s vanishing stores of fossil fuel.  Yet, like all good junkies, denial is a potent psychological crutch.  So "stability" has replaced "growth" as the latest buzzword politicians promise those who still wish to pretend that industrial civilization hasn’t entered a long period of uneven, irreversible cold turkey.  But things are anything but stable.  For twenty years now Californians have been slammed by a series of environmental calamities and rocked by alternating bouts of stagflation and depression.

The whole situation has been aggravated by a stealth campaign to rob Californians of their dwindling water resources.  Multinational corporations, banks and landowners have exercised their political muscle in Sacramento to become water barons.  By privatizing as much of the state’s water sources as they can get their hands on, they have been quickly and quietly cornering the water market.  Once in control, they sell “their” water to desperate citizens, cities and farms forced to pay their inflated prices.

By the late 20s, widespread public discontent with water shortages and price gouging, a failing economy and a rigged political system finally erupted into a full-blown populist insurrection that transformed the political landscape.  2030 may go down as a landmark year in the state’s history.  Energized, angry citizens are converging on Sacramento this June to participate in a constitutional convention.  They are vowing to completely overhaul the state constitution in the hope that this will widen the avenues of democratic participation and crack down on the political schemes that have handed over public resources like water to multinational corporations.

For the first time in decades, Californians are hopeful that things are changing for the better.  If instituted, these constitutional reforms may prove essential for reversing water privatization schemes, conserving California's dwindling water supply and sharing it fairly.  Though the battle is far from over, people believe these democratic breakthroughs will improve the chances of building a more stable, resilient, equitable economy in balance with the ecosystems that sustain it.

Today’s constitutional reform movement was born during the peaceful insurrection of 2025, after ten years of drought and a 6-year global depression brought the state to its knees.  In 2019, the collapse of "the Chinese economic miracle" devastated California's trading centers--LA, San Diego and San Francisco.  Thousands of jobless people abandoned the state.  The decline in population and economic activity produced such a significant reduction in water use that the drought’s impact gained less attention than the state’s economic woes.

During the first years of drought, corporate agribusiness touted their commitment to water efficiency in an unsuccessful bid to convince Californians they could be trusted to conserve water without being tightly regulated and stripped of their water rights and subsidies.  By 2018, these heavily hyped voluntary measures proved no match for a deepening drought that was further aggravated by series of severe weather calamities and sleezy water privatization schemes that were sending Southern Californian's water bills through the roof.

Now that we're 3 decades into the 21st century, Californians have come to regret how long it took to acknowledge that calling climate chaos "global warming" was like calling pneumonia “the sniffles.”  Over the last few decades, elevated ocean acidity and an unrelenting series of El Niño episodes have decimated California's marine ecosystems and gutted the state's fishing industry.  Rising sea levels and high tides frequently inundate the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta with salt water, forcing the delta's pumping stations, that normally send fresh water to farms and cities in the south, to shut down.  In addition, climate disruption has meant more rain (but less snow) in the far North; less snowfall in the Sierras; and persistent droughts in the South.  Under these arid conditions, the number of forest fires in the state has shot up 500% in the last fifteen years.

To make matters worse, torrential tropical rainstorms, blown in from the Hawaiian Islands, have occasionally interrupted our fifteen-year drought.  These storms have melted the Sierra's dwindling snowpack, unleashing disastrous flash floods along the Yuba, American and Sacramento Rivers.  By 2020, these "pineapple express" floods had ruptured the Delta's aging levees three times, causing hundreds of deaths and billions in property damage.  After the first two floods obliterated vast tracts of Sacramento's suburban sprawl, insurance became unavailable in these vulnerable areas.  Fortunately, these flood plains have been reclaimed by nature and are now thriving riparian and wetland ecosystems.

In the wake of these climate-induced traumas, Californians began seriously reconsidering their relationship with water. Of course, some powerful interests still lobbied for building more dams to contain floods and make up for vanishing aquifers and snowpack loss.  In 2021, an unrepentant cabal of old-school water developers from Southern California even lobbied for a dam to be built under the Golden Gate Bridge so the Bay could be drained of its salt water.  They argued that since the San Francisco-Oakland harbor was no longer a thriving enterprise, the Bay could be put to better use by making it an enormous fresh water reservoir that could trap all of the fresh water flowing out to sea.

This hare-brained scheme found some support in the South, but met angry opposition in the Bay Area.  Ultimately, it never gained traction because neither the state nor the federal government had the money to finance extravagant new water projects while struggling to maintain the state's aging hydraulic infrastructure and crumbling levee system.

The state's depleted budget and perpetual water crisis generated growing enthusiasm for a simpler, more common sense approach to water.  Instead of funding ever-more expensive, complex, high-tech methods of capturing water, reformers advocated conservation, recycling, equitable distribution and ecosystem revival.  They insisted that water be treated as a precious common resource--a vital ingredient for all life--that must be used and reused sparingly and wisely to benefit future generations of Californians and the other creatures who share the state with us. 

Since 2015, sweltering summers and constant drought have made life in Southern California hotter, harder and considerably less glamorous.  Today, blistering heat waves make summers miserable.  Electricity brownouts and soaring energy prices have made air-conditioning an unreliable luxury.  Temperatures that refuse to drop below 120 degrees for weeks on end have driven thousands of long-time LA residents to abandon the city for cooler climates.  For the suffering souls who remain, the beach has become a last refuge for those seeking relief.  Strict conservation ordinances and rising water bills have all but eliminated the green lawns and azure swimming pools that were once the status symbols of Southern California's envied lifestyle.

Today, city ordinances forbid watering lawns, playing in the sprinkler, washing your car, or even using the hose on hot summer days.  The only remaining golf course in business has replaced water hazards with sand traps and grass with Astroturf and drought resistant plants wherever possible; outrageous green fees are levied to cover the cost of watering their remaining fairways and putting greens.

After years of reluctance and resistance, Californians are finally embracing conservation.  To keep water bills from bankrupting them, businesses, schools and families have installed all the latest conservation devices in their faucets, showers and toilets.  Water catchment systems collect rain, and gray water systems recycle and reuse precious water that once went straight down the drain.  As a result, per capita water consumption dropped 63% between 2015 and 2030.  Recent city ordinances, especially in the south, encourage homeowners to use composting toilets.  This should reduce water consumption much further and allow homeowners to sell the compost they don't use in their gardens to the biosolids collectors who market it to local farmers.

California agriculture has been transformed by the rising value and scarcity of water.  Small farmers and city folks became fed-up with paying huge water bills while government subsidies kept irrigation costs for agri-business "dirt cheap."  However, big growers argued that soaring energy prices had already cut deeply into their profit margins so their water rights and subsidies were more important than ever.  Indeed, many large-scale agricultural exporters had gone under due to the mounting cost of petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides, mechanization, processing and global transportation.  Those that remained insisted that they were conserving water by shifting from thirsty crops like alfalfa, corn and rice to those more suited to minimal irrigation.

All this was true.  In fact, some corporate landowners abandoned large-scale agriculture all together.  Instead, they made huge profits by becoming absentee land and water barons.  They began leasing parcels of land to family farmers and using their government-granted water rights to sell their government-subsidized water to desperate farmers and thirsty towns and cities.

As the water crisis intensified, an angry alliance of family farms, co-ops and urban consumers called for an end to the government's preferential system of water rights and subsidies.  By 2020, this grassroots movement successfully pressured Sacramento and Washington to cut back "water welfare" doled out to the largest mega-farms in the state.  This became the final nail in the coffin for most California agri-barons, who have auctioned off or leased vast tracts of farmland to less water and petroleum dependent small growers producing for an eager local market of consumers who can no longer afford expensive imported foods. This partial victory is a hopeful sign that the public may finally be turning the tide against further privatization of the state's water resources.

Water privatization in California was part of a global strategy to control fresh water.  Way back in 2005, European multinationals (Nestlé, Suez, RWE, Unilever and Vivendi) and American corporations (PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Crystal Geyser) began scheming to own as much as possible of the world's fresh water supply.  European multinationals moved quietly into the United States water market by purchasing American companies like U.S. Filter, United Water and American Water Works.  By 2010, about 20% of Californians bought their water from private corporations; today, this figure had doubled.

This privatization trend isn’t unique to California.  All over the planet, multinational water conglomerates have been waging stealth campaigns to quietly seize control of public water resources and hydraulic infrastructure.  After their water monopolies are in place, these conglomerates jack up water prices, generating angry resistance despite all of their efforts to keep a low profile.  In the last few decades, popular resistance to water privatization has toppled governments in Bolivia, Egypt, Kenya, Libya, Peru, Italy, Jordan and Pakistan.

Although resistance to privatization is growing around California, corporate water barons employ several crafty methods to overcome public opposition.  The most effective Trojan horse used to bamboozle the public and capture their water resources is technology.  Wherever clean fresh water is scarce and local governments lack the funds to build and operate expensive desalinization plants, water recycling facilities and nanotechnology or reverse osmosis decontamination systems, these corporations are eager to step in and peddle their hi-tech solutions.

Water barons promise city governments that their new technologies will improve water quality and supply with minimal sacrifice.  To sweeten the deal, they offer cash-strapped municipalities big bucks to sign over public water systems to them.  In the name of raising government revenues, cutting spending, stimulating the economy and improving the water delivery system, many local water districts have taken the bait.

Once in control, the new corporate water lords lobby the state and federal governments for tax breaks and subsidies to construct their expensive, energy intensive desalinization and water treatment systems.  Yet, time after time, these sweet deals have turned toxic as corporations fattened themselves on the taxpayer dole, jacked-up water bills, cut their operation costs by ignoring water quality and infrastructure maintenance, and ignored widespread public grievances.

As the water crisis deepened, people became openly hostile to water privatization schemes that left ecosystems, struggling family farmers and poor communities high and dry.  Years of drought and deception sparked many angry protests, but it took two week-long water riots that spread like wildfire through poor neighborhoods in LA, Long Beach and Fresno in 2018 and 2022 to make Southern California the epicenter of this issue around the nation.

In all three cases, these water riots were sparked by police and private armed security guards who shut off water to whole neighborhoods where residents refused to pay their soaring water bills.  Shut off valves were sealed with cement after residents brought their water bills to impromptu “water town hall meetings” and denounced secret deals between city officials and water executives on the evening news.  Over the next few years these water rebellions erupted all over the country, from Dallas to Detroit.

By the mid-20s, a national movement to outlaw water privatization had gained momentum.  Activists warned that unless publicly owned systems of water conservation, catchment and recycling were developed to preserve, protect and distribute water as a common resource, water would become fully commodified and sold only to the highest bidders.  After successful initiatives eliminated water subsidies for big-ag in 2028, California's Water Action Movement (WAM)--an alliance of urban water consumers, small farmers and environmental activists--blocked several water privatization schemes and went on the offensive to demand more democratic control over the state's precious water resources.

Today, WAM has become one tributary of a larger political current pushing for a fundamental reform of California's dysfunctional political system.  After decades of depression and stagflation, bankrupt government services and decaying infrastructure, dysfunctional public education, water and energy shortages and multiple environmental calamities, Californians finally decided they'd had enough.

Re-writing the state constitution became the primary focus of this populist insurrection when politicians from both parties refused to tax oil extraction to fund disaster relief after levee ruptures flooded Sacramento in 2022 and 2024 and wildfires ravaged Southern California in the same years.  Public anger exploded over corruption and misuse of relief funds by state and federal agencies and massive insurance fraud intensified these disasters.  By 2026 this torrent of public anger and populist activism engulfed Sacramento, forcing politicians to succumb to the demand for a new constitutional convention in 2030.

One of the key demands of many citizen-activists coming to the convention is a constitutional amendment that establishes a public trust to govern the use of water, energy and other vital resources.  A lively debate rages over how to bring these resources under more democratic control and protect them from privatization and overuse.  The outcome of this confrontation may determine the fate of the state’s water resources for generations to come.


20 Important Facts About Water
• One-half of 1 percent of the world's water is FRESH (not saltwater).
• Of that .5 percent, about 50 percent is polluted.
• One in 6 people don't have access to clean, safe water.
• Five food and beverage giants — Nestlé, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Anheuser Busch, and Groupe Danone — consume almost 575 billion liters of water per year, enough to satisfy the daily water needs of every person on the planet. 
• The average human needs about 13 gallons of water each day for drinking, cooking, and sanitation. 
• An average North American uses about 150 gallons of water each day. 
• An average African: 1.5 gallons. 
• The average Bay Area resident: 72 gallons. 
• The average Los Angeles resident: 122 gallons. 
• About half the water used by a typical home goes for lawns, gardens, and pools. 
• 50 percent of US water comes from non-renewable groundwater. 
• 86 percent of Americans get their water from public water systems.
• 80 percent of California's homes get water from public systems.
• The 20 percent of CA households receiving water from privately-owned systems pay an average of 20 percent more for it. 
• Of the 4.5 billion people with access to clean drinking water worldwide, 15 percent are buying it from private water companies. 
• It takes 3 liters of water to produce 1 liter of bottled water.
• Tests of 1,000 bottles of water spanning 103 brands revealed that about one-third contained some level of contamination.
• The bottled water industry is worth $60 billion a year.
• Water is the third biggest industry in the world, worth $425 billion, ranking just behind electricity and oil.

• About 70 percent of CA's water lies north of Sacramento, but 80 percent of the demand is from the southern two-thirds of the state.

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