Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The looming water disaster that could destroy California, and enrich its billionaire farmers

A fine, looooong muckraking piece by Yasha Levine in Alternet: …Imagine the devastating flooding of Hurricane Katrina multiplied by epic sandstorms, drought and economic collapse of the Dust Bowl. Now picture it happening an hour east of Apple's headquarters in Silicon Valley and spreading all the way down to the Mexican border. … California's politicians have known about this looming catastrophe for decades. They also have had the power to neutralize the threat. But no one has done anything to prevent it.

Just like the oligarchs who used the shock of Hurricane Katrina's destruction to tear down public housing, privatize public schools and pillage the city's poorest, California's most powerful business interests have positioned themselves to profit from this disaster. A handful of billionaire farmers and real estate developers are in line to pull off the most brazen water heist in American history, seizing control over much of Northern California's water supplies and do what they have always wanted: turn water, a shared public resource, into a private asset that can be traded on the open market.

At the center of this epic water grab is the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a Yosemite-sized patchwork of waterways and farmland an hour east of Oakland that sits atop California's single largest water source. Formed by the confluence of state's two largest rivers as they flow out to the San Francisco Bay, more than half of all rainfall and snowmelt drains through the Delta, supplying two-thirds of California with water and irrigating most of the state's farmland. The Delta's agricultural, fishing and tourism industries produce up $5 billion in combined economic output a year and the region remains one of California's last holdouts of small and family farms. It is also home to the most dangerous flood control system in America.

"Now we realize it may be the single most at-risk piece of property in the United States," John Radke, a professor at UC Berkeley's Department of City and Regional Planning, told Emergency Management magazine. "If you had a catastrophic event there and you can't get things built, you won't just have people unable to go across a bridge, you'll have people without drinking water -- 22 million of them."

…Yet one group that might be anticipating this disaster is a tiny cabal of billionaire farmers from the Westlands Water District, an irrigated farming region spanning 1,000 square miles of some of the hottest, most arid land in the San Joaquin Valley between Fresno and Bakersfield. "With crops worth $1 billion a year, this one district produces more than some whole states," writes Mark Grossi of the Fresno Bee. The farmers in the district make up a secretive old boys' network that has used its wealth and power to divert rivers, empty lakes, plunder taxpayers' wealth, privatize water and defy California's constitution…

A broken levee along the Sacramento River, under repair by the US Army Corps of Engineers, which also took the photo. Date and location unknown

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