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Watered-Down Rights

by Paul F. Heller Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2002 at 3:32 PM

The needs of the few apparently outweigh the needs of the many when it comes to quenching California's thirst

Interior Secretary Gale Norton, yet another one of George W. Bush’s second-string cabinet appointees, has now determined that California’s water usage should be restricted. She says they are using more than their fair share of Colorado River water, which quenches the thirst of most all of the Western states. This means, essentially, that Los Angeles and San Diego will lose more than half of their usual water allocations. While I am not privy to Ms. Norton’s educational accolades, this would seem to be a mentally questionable move on her part, and by proxy on the part of the Bush Administration. Taking away half of Southern California’s water supply cannot be considered anything except stupid.

Of course, the reason for the shortage is, and has been since the middle of the last century, the influence of corporate farmers in California. It’s not as if SoCal just popped up overnight; it has been home to the largest population base forever now. Farming in the West, though, has been the greatest unnecessary drain on the Colorado River (there used to be rivers in California, but they sucked those dry). But those grape-growers in California, always a good friend to the Republican Party – ask anyone who marched with Cesar Chavez – make no sense.

Simply put, there is no need to farm anything in California, or in Arizona, or Nevada, or anywhere else in the West. It is corporate welfare for a handful of greedy landowners, who earlier this year drew up the Farm Bill for Bush to sign. I come from Michigan, where the government pays the farmers not to farm the land. Then they help the small farmers set up the auctions so that the big farmers can come and take their tractors and fields away from them. And it has long been a practice of the federal government to grow too much food in this country, to keep the prices down. What we don’t export to starving nations, we throw away.

As bad as urban sprawl is, the states allowed it to happen. And nowhere in the Constitution is the federal government given the right to allocate water resources. The duties of the feds are pretty well spelled out, and the document provides specifically that those chores not given to Washington are to be left to the states to take care of, and the states’ decisions are not to be abridged. But the Constitution, you know, that’s a crusty old sheaf of paper, and this administration doesn’t much give a damn about what it says in there. Norton’s decision is merely another reflection of Bush’s arrogance when it comes to gouging the state of California.

Arizona is also dependent on Colorado River water, and we too have rich farmers who make a very cushy living by irrigating desert land that would otherwise push up only sagebrush and tumbleweeds. Meanwhile, in the Midwest, there’s this thing they call “rain”, a phenomenon seldom seen out here, wherein water actually falls out of the sky. And in dry years, they also have this resource called the Great Lakes, which consists of about twenty percent of the world’s fresh water supply, so if they do resort to irrigation, it doesn’t strain the supply of drinking water for the people in the region. Before the government started sticking its thumbs in the soup, that’s where all the food came from. But some wealthy landowners wanted in on the cash crop, so here we are today, with Bush’s Interior Secretary cutting the water in half where 25 million people are concerned, in order to save the hides of a fistful of farmers who happen to vote Republican (and donate campaign dollars to Republican candidates) with a fervor that can best be described as religious.

I seem to remember something about Eisenhower spending millions of taxpayer dollars to build interstate freeways. I thought the idea was to expand commerce via trucking. With the delivery infrastructure having long been in place, there is no reason whatsoever to accommodate farming on lands that are actually fit to produce absolutely nothing. And in Mexico, where the Colorado ran dry years ago, they manage to grow tons of produce, and wasn’t the purpose of NAFTA to do more business with the Mexican farmer? Before this, it was all folly. Now, with drought and the population explosion combining to stress the water supplies in the West more than ever before, this boondoggle has become outright dangerous.

It is not “California” that must learn to deal with water shortages. It is the pork-barrel rollers of the right wing who should learn to live on the basis of reality. The good-time party for California’s corporate farmers should, in terms of common sense, be over. Instead, the bad times for John Q. Public in Southern California (even those who were gullible enough to vote for Bush) have just begun. Were it not so typical of Republican corporate-first thinking, it would make waves across this great country. But I guess you can’t even make a ripple without water.

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