Reflections of Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire

All water is local
California has two world famous cities on its spectacularly beautiful coast; its fragile, iconic Sierra is haunted by world famous John Muir; and Central California is an irrigated desert people drive through from coastal city to city, or from the coast to the mountains. California's beautiful environmentalists protect our sacred coast and the color of our sacred Lake Tahoe. But, when it gets to the Kangaroo Rat, Vernal Pool fairy shrimp, deformed migratory waterfowl, poisoned raptors, the San Joaquin Kit fox and other endangered species of the irrigated desert, it’s another story. Actually, it is rarely a story at all. But, however rare that is, the story of the people who defend endangered species and the natural resources of the Central Valley is rarer still. Although our fights take place in the very center of the state, they rarely rise to the level of state appellate courts, despite having the worst air quality in the US and groundwater quality so bad the United Nations is studying it. Only our foreclosure rate is of larger interest because so many speculators from the coast drove the boom and lost their shirts in the bust. Then, of course, there are the banks, fewer now than there were a few years ago.
Because the story of the people of the Central Valley is usually reduced to farmers, farm labor, low literacy, high percentage of immigrants, and the crime rate, we don’t possess much confidence in speculating on big questions in public. Our educated elites read books about us because they’ve lost the power of sight, and now that we have a University of California campus here, we don’t really need to try to think about ourselves or our environmental any more at all: it’s all done for us by credentialed professionals. According to the new epistemology, if we academics don’t know it, it doesn’t exist. Therefore, if you know it and we don’t, you don’t exist. But you can be saved if you follow the right leaders. Tent-service preachers have been replaced by prophets of technology.   
I recently read Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity and the Growth of the American West (1985).  It is a book about the scarcity of water in the West and how federal funding, hydraulic engineering, bureaucracy and capitalism created the system of water delivery that is the basis of our society. Worster argues that the western United States, which he believes have become the center of the American Empire since the end of WWII (because Del Webb bought the Yankees in 1945?), must collapse because it is a society in arid lands built on the most advanced hydraulic engineering water delivery system in the world. Since all “hydraulic societies” produce autocratic governments ruled by bureaucracies and experts, and such societies are bound to fail, we don’t have a chance in the San Joaquin Valley to avoid the suzerainty of the evil hydrocrats: imported engineers mangling our language and common sense; the hostile anxieties of people who own too much land to be irrigated but who will buy enough congressmen to ensure they have the subsidized water to grow the subsidized crops; the squeaky curses of the politicians in their back pockets; the “We farm. You eat” crowd from the farm bureau, babbling whatever line the Sacramento bosses have ordered for the day; and the realtors, developers and their press.
In the cracks between elegant arguments and stunning descriptions, including sojourns in Germany with Marx, Karl Wittfogel and the Frankfort School, Worster suggests that the highest proof for the degeneration of the California hydraulic society is in the region of the state I come from, the people we are, the environment we work to protect, represented by a menagerie of buffoons in Congress. Worster seems to see us all as one great Joad Family and did not get beyond Steinbeck’s rendition of the 1930’s in the San Joaquin Valley in his cultural studies.  But half the 20,000 cotton strikers in 1933 were Mexican and the mid-1960’s, Mexicans dominated farm labor in the West. The increasing Mexican dominance of valley society has more to do with the financial engineering in the International Monetary Fund and trade engineering in NAFTA than it does hydraulic engineering in the Valley.
The only thing real I found about Worster’s “hydraulic society” was the engineering.
My partner in this environmental work wisely restricts most of her reading to environmental and court documents. She usually makes fun of my attempts to soar with the intellectual eagles of environmentalism, in fact cautioning me against these flights, in her view a useless distraction from our work. Nevertheless, when she realized I couldn’t quit struggling with Worster’s book, she took pity. “You wanted to like it, didn’t you,” she said.
Yes, I wanted to like Worster’s Rivers of Empire. I wanted to believe in this book as if it were a great academic Yellow Canoe in which we could paddle safely through the world of water flak, where the most dangerous illusions are the “objective perspectives” provided by our caring water professionals along with various and sundry water witches.. I thought of Worster, a Kansan, as a possible descendant of Dorothy, Uncle Henry and Aunt Em, with the suggestion of wizardry about his high forehead.
Yes, I wanted to believe in the possibility of eine westlichamericanische Wasserwissenschaft und so wieder! What undergraduate romance again!
But the Big Picture, in all its academic glory, rarely if ever relates to vernacular knowledge of place, at least in the U.S. There are essential antagonisms of intent, method, and audience.     
I was taking a walk on the bike trail along Bear Creek, which runs through Merced CA around noon the other day. I came upon a bee swarm, an unusual sight these days. They were returning to a familiar hole in a dead Live Oak. I’d just been thinking about a conversation I’d had with the dean of San Joaquin Valley water journalists. He’d found an article in an Australian newspaper about a study done at University of California, Riverside, linking Colony Collapse Disorder, the scourge killing millions of Honey bees, to selenium and heavy metal poisoning. Half the bees in the US come out to California annually to pollinate the almond orchards (80 percent of the world’s supply at the moment), and thousands of acres of almonds have been planted on the selenium/heavy metal laden soils (alkali flats in living memory) of the west side of the valley, thanks to water deliveries by the federal Bureau of Reclamation. But it seems to me that the reason for this bee/selenium connection has more to do with the free market in members of Congress than in hydraulic social pressure.
Speaking of the free market, a free market in California water has been a major aim of neo-liberals in the state since the early 1970’s. And it was a radical idea at the time, when people did not look kindly on selling water and “transferring” it between districts was a cumbersome legal process. The whole tendency in water rights since that time has been to streamline the buying and selling of water. The elections of two politicians, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, will depend in part on how their two bills, both of which have water-transfer components, fair in Congress before November.
The society that is emerging does not resemble Worster’s Wittfogelian prophesies. Evidently, Worster could not see how weak government was becoming relative to corporate finance capitalism, of the sort Stewart and Lynda Resnick employed to buy a controlling interest from the state in the Kern County Water Bank. The Resnicks converted a fortune in Franklin Mint schlock into Paramount Farms, largest citrus, nut and now pomegranate producers in the state. Their interest in the water bank however, is a gold mine: it allows them to convert subsidized irrigation water into private property to be sold to high municipal and industrial bidders in Southern California. This arrangement occurred because the state bailed on the project for insufficient funds to run it. Thus a former merchant of commemorative dishes rather than a expert water bureaucrat  controls this water bank.
When the time came, after the Civil War, for the US to expand into the arid West, the first great geographer of Western water supply, John Westley Powell, seemed to get it right – if unacceptably to capitalists. The only way a western society would work would be if it made its political jurisdictions match its watersheds. This would have produced a huge area of federalized cantons, much as the Mormons in fact had set up in Utah. The Mormons were the first Anglo irrigators in the West. Before them were the Spaniards in New Mexico, who learned it from Arabs of their past and their present Indian neighbors. Although Powell’s model for the macro political map of the West failed in Washington, on the ground there is much evidence of it and there have always been powerful tensions – by no means abating – between political jurisdictions that do reflect their watershed origins, bounded by rivers, embracing smaller creeks, and other jurisdictions established arbitrarily by surveyors working for land developers. Just look at a map of California counties. Those squiggly lines are mostly rivers. When those political boundaries are compared with the gerrymandered political districts of the state, which do not obey natural borders and often pit constituencies against constituencies, you have at least one cause of state Legislature Collapse Disorder. But the state Department of Water Resources or the federal Bureau of Reclamation were not responsible for the gerrymandering. It should also be noted that except for its northeast corner, the counties of Kansas are laid out like a checkerboard, distinguished only by their names.
Worster’s fundamental problem with the “hydraulic society” thesis of Karl Wittfogel and with its offspring, the “hydraulic trap” of Marvin Harris, is that capitalism is the fundamental driver and has been since Powell’s sane suggestions were first ignored. Western landholding have always had a more speculative intent than farmers in the East or homesteaders in the Midwest, therefore the western holdings were as large as the owner and his bankers could afford, rather than a free 160-acre homestead from the government if you could survive on it where Dorothy grew up out there in Kansas before the Dust Bowl. Keeping pace with subdivision for residential growth in the Valley, in the late 19th century land speculators subdivided into 10-40-acre irrigated vineyards and orchards. Falling prices caused by mono-cropping what became overproduced commodities caused farm consolidation. It’s hard to see how the water “bureaucrats” were responsible except in one area – which never had small farmers – the Westlands Water District, occupying the western parts of two Valley counties, an area we might call Heavy Metal Flats.  There are eight counties in the San Joaquin Valley alone. In all of agricultural Central California, there are 18 counties and several other adjoining that compose the richest irrigated agricultural area in the world.
Worster characterizes the valley as an example of a hydraulic society designed by engineers that have constructed alien and dangerous canals through our world.
"Quite simply," he lectures us, "the modern canal, unlike a river, is not an ecosystem." Regarding warning signs around canals, he continues, "However, their darker effect is to suggest that the contrived world of the irrigation canal is not a place where living things, including humans, are welcome."
At Easter dinner several of us born and raised in Modesto CA, whose slogan is “Water Wealth Contentment Health,” rang out the old names: Nunes, Helen St., Sunrise, Sandy Bottom, the Gush (or Two Drop), Emerald, and Hetch-Hetchy. These were the names of our town’s principle swimming holes on the canals that ran through town. However, I suppose that since we qualify as “desert people,” Worster would view those sunbathing teenagers at the popular drops as being as brainless as Camus’ sunbathers in “L’Ete.” And beneath the strata of the mega-Biblebabblers, there is older, quieter strains of German pietism here.
But nobody put our environment and the decent aspirations of past generations better than William Saroyan in a sketch called “Raisins” (1936).

A man could walk four or five miles in any direction from the heart of our city and see our streets dwindle to land and weeds. In many places the land would be vineyard and orchard land, but in most places it would be desert land and the weeds would be the strong, dry weeds of deserts, and in this land there would be the living things that had had their being in the quietness of deserts for centuries. There would be snakes and horned toads, prairie dogs and jackrabbits, and in the sky above this land would be buzzards and hawks, and the hot sun. And everywhere in our desert would be the marks of wagons that had made lonely roads, so that we knew men were living in this dry country.
Two miles from the heart of our city a man could come to the desert and feel the loneliness of a desolate area, of a place lost in the earth, far from the solace of human thought, and it was a tremendous thing to know that we had men in our valley who were slowly filling this desert with the moments of their lives, their minds, their quiet talk, and their energy. Standing at the edge of our city, a man could feel that we had made this place of streets and dwellings in the stillness and loneliness of the desert, and that we had done a b rave thing. We had come to this dry area that was without history, and we had paused in it and built our houses and we were slowly creating the legend of our labor. We were digging for water and we were leading streams through the dry land. We were planting and plowing and standing in the midst of thed garden we were making.

All water is local. Marc Reisner understood that and it is why his Cadillac Desert is a better book than Rivers of Empire. There are few of California’s 58 counties not bounded by at least one river. Not to be a Modesto chauvinist (although I proudly wear my minor league Modesto Nuts baseball cap – “Go Nuts!”) the state Wright Act of 1887 established the state’s irrigation districts, the majority of them receiving their water from rivers originating in the Sierra. Modesto is the county seat of Stanislaus County, bounded by two rivers and containing three of the oldest irrigation districts in the state. For us, books like Rivers of Empire make topics for civilized chat but they don’t lay a glove on the reality everyone knows, whether he chooses to think about it or not.
Worster devotes the body of his book to a history of the development of the West in terms of hydraulic engineering, mainly by the federal government. He breaks it down into three sections: Incipience (exploration of the whole arid West); Florescence (development of government power in the West): more Florescence (the 20th century history of the Central Valley of California); and Empire. This last section deals with the latter day triumphs of engineering and technology, the final form of California’s hydraulic system, and the dementia of the engineers as expressed in the great North America Water and Power Alliance (NAWAPA), whereby water from Alaskan and Canadian rivers would flow through canals, tunnels and reservoirs from their places of origin to irrigate the Prairie provinces to the Great Lakes (providing barge passage from Alaska to New Orleans),  replenish the dwindling Ogallala aquifer, provide more water for eastern Washington, Idaho and Montana, and onward to the southwestern deserts, and even Mexico.
I actually heard Gov. Pat Brown make reference to NAWAPA in a 1966 speech in the mountain hamlet of Chester CA and I was as bemused by it as the rest of the audience. It was a hot day, the Governor was losing his campaign, and we just thought he’d had a brain fart.
In the end I could never get past the “oriental despotism” problem. Wittfogel was primarily an Asian scholar. Worster seems to suggest that because we westerners live in an arid climate, we’re just too dumb to manage our own affairs in a manner resembling exponents of Western Civilization.
"Democracy," Worster comments, "cannot survive where technical expertise, accumulated capital, or their combination is allowed to take command. Accepting the authority of engineers, scientists, economists, and bureaucrats along with the power of capital, the common people become a herd..."
He doesn’t understand the structure of irrigation districts and doesn’t know that one of the best public-meeting laws in the nation, the California Brown Act, was the highest accomplishment of former state Assemblyman Ralph Brown, D-Modesto. It is a law that local governments and their statewide associations never tire of trying to weaken. Its preamble is not the statement of hydraulic despotism:

The people of this State do not yeild their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what it is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.

Another historical problem with the hydraulic despotism theory is that Worster’s “empire” stalled in the late 1970s when a Public Trust lawsuit was brought against Los Angeles for diverting the water from four of the five tributaries feeding Mono Lake. His orotund portents unravel in the undeniable presence of human intervention because his determinist theory – grand water works = despotism – doesn’t contain any theory of human resistance. He gives nostalgia for the Old West as the motive for environmental activism in our region. All this means to me is that Worster is unaware of the existence of the California Environmental Quality Act or the state Fish and Game statutes, to name a few of the statutes on which members of the public sue their governmental agencies. However, we hope that Worster’s book raises somebody’s consciousness by drawing such a drastic, desterministic portrait of the West. History’s going to roll right over us and it would be unfashionably uneducated not to know and believe that, wouldn’t it.  
Worster’s claim that the increase in 1978 of the 160-acre limitation for the receipt of federally subsidized water under the Reclamation Act was the end of American agrarianism, is a ridiculous faculty-lounge cocktail sound bite. At least some of us thought that the Dust Bowl on the southern Plains was a better candidate of the “End of Agrarianism” than one of the most obscure disputes in agriculture, centered on farmers in only one, if the largest, water district in the nation. The district didn’t contain one farm as small as 160 acres. To conflate the power and behavior of Westlands Water District with that even of the rest of the San Joaquin Valley, is silly, particularly the relatively anarchic behavior of irrigation districts operating under state, not federal law. As one general manager of an irrigation district once told me, “The price of a water right is eternal vigilance.” He was deadly serious and general managers of all other irrigation districts are equally deadly serious and vigilant against each other and larger entities – private or public – seeking one drop of their sacred allotment.
On paper at least, the irrigation districts are democratically run by their elected directors. But it is a complex picture as in fact most democratic institutions are. These boards have difficulties opposing the schemes of their managers to sell portions of their sacred allotments to other water agencies for large financial gains because these employees are in charge of delivering the water at certain times to certain places. At irrigation-district public meetings hydraulic engineers seek to bore farmers and the public to death with power point presentations – the despotism of sheer, mind numbing often concealing extremely manipulative behavior. However, the board members are also capable of manipulation so, in a nutshell, there is always a lot of democratic dirty politics going on in irrigation districts.

Worster’s failure to include environmental law as opposed to narrowly defined “water law,” starting with the Public Trust Doctrine and moving on through all the major federal and state acts establishing protections for the environment, meant that he failed to even see the most significant environmental actions since those laws were passed a half century ago. He fails to understand that environmental law means nothing without a public willing to sue developers who abuse the law and resource bureaucracies who ignore their enforcement responsibilities to defend these excellent laws. One is impressed that Worster’s elitism is so extreme that he cannot acknowledge the existence of a strongly engaged, committed public that is defending its environment. He missed the resistance surrounding the Kesterson Wildlife Refuge contamination by heavy metal ag drainage from the west side of the San Joaquin Valley – a resistance involving ranchers, government biologists, environmentalists and reporters. He missed the most obviously dramatic element of the Friant-Kern Canal story – that the canal dried up the San Joaquin River for 40 miles, and he missed the storm brewing there that launched lawsuits that brought salmon back to the river for the first time in 60 years; He even missed how Southern California socialite, Richard Wilson, who had become a rancher in Round Valley in eastern Mendocino County, nearly single-handed through social/political connections, stopped the Army Corps from building the Dos Rios Dam that would have flooded his ranches, many other residences including an Indian reservation.
It seems that wherever the human heart rises to defend the environment in which it lives, it violates the “hydraulic society’ premise of Rivers of Empire, therefore is disregarded like random dots on the outskirts of bell curves.
Worster’s pro forma afterthoughts about what we might do to avoid our doom seem to consist of practicing Small Is Beautiful principles and cultivating desert mysticism. He calls E.F. Schumacher an “Englishman,” when in fact Schumacher, from Hamburg, was a German prisoner of war in Britain who worked on an English farm throughout WWII. In essays like “Buddhist Economics,” Schumacher showed he understood very well the place of the human heart in even the hostile shores of economics. Leopold Kohr, Schumacher’s mentor and author of greatest argument against the scale of government and the capitalist economy, The Breakdown of Nations, would give Worster the vapors. Yet, any solution to political economic and environmental problems in the West must begin with reducing the scale of nearly everything and developing associations and cooperation, lateral or horizontal association rather than the top down control that built the infrastructure. We must construct economic and political units that make sense, for example at the very basic level, legislative districts with identifiably common interests. And we must, through association and cooperation, based on the common value of institutions that are intelligible to human beings, defend these small scale units against very large and – one must admit – growing adversaries that will seek to crush small institutions just because they are smaller.