Sep 28, 2015
The Westlands Water District, which serves agribusiness in the driest part of California’s Central Valley, just got a sweetheart deal from the Obama administration. Westlands’s big growers gave a vague promise to deal with vast amounts of toxic pollution that their farms produce. In return, the federal government guarantees delivery to the growers of almost twice as much water as the annual usage of the city of Los Angeles. And it bars federal or state officials from ever diverting this water for other uses.
The Obama administration also forgave a 350 million dollar debt that the growers still owe as their share of the federal infrastructure that brings them the water, while transferring ownership of that federally funded infrastructure to the owner-controlled district, without compensation.
The Westlands Water District, located west of Fresno, covers a region that is comparable in size to the state of Rhode Island. It contains some of the powerhouses of California agribusiness, and even in this year of withering drought, the almond and pistachio trees and the fields of melons, tomatoes and onions go on and on. These fields produce more crops than do some entire states.
These farm empires trace their roots back to the landholdings of the Union Pacific Railroad octopus, John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil and the family of Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler. The only difference is that today, the owners use private jets to commute from their mansions in Beverly Hills or Orange County. But the migrant laborers who do the work still live in such terrible squalor that the region is considered the poorest in the United States.
Since these fields are located in uninhabitable desert, agribusiness’s profits depend on secure access to massive amounts of water. In the first decades of the 20th century, the growers drilled very deep wells and pumped so much water out of the ground, the fields sank like a partially baked cake. So the powerful, politically connected agribusinesses got Congress to extend the huge federal irrigation system that serves California to their side of the Central Valley. Heavily subsidized federal water started spilling into their canals in 1968.
But widespread irrigation created another problem. Since the soil is full of minerals from an ancient seabed and it is perched atop a layer of clay, the irrigation leached the minerals and the clay barrier trapped the water. Unless it is drained, the land is poisoned. In the late 1970s, the federal government began building a master drain that would eventually empty into the Sacramento Delta. But long before it was finished, biologists discovered the drainage water was poisoning fish and waterfowl, and so the federal government closed the drain.
The government never came up with a solution about what to do with all that badly poisoned water from the fields. Many scientists say that the fields should never have been irrigated in the first place, and a few growers are already taking some of their fields out of production, instead building huge solar cell arrays on their property, for example.
The Obama administration’s settlement, guaranteeing massive amounts of federal water at prices that are less than 10 percent of the market rate, is nothing but a massive profit subsidy for the big farm owners. They can either use the water that the federal government provides them, or sell what they don’t need at a very, very high profit.
Government officials and the news media use the severe drought and their dire predictions of a future of even worse droughts as an excuse to hike water utility rates sky high on working people. Meanwhile, behind closed doors, they give away massive amounts of water – and wealth – to agribusiness and its capitalist allies.