The old ways are the only ways

The theme of the "old regime" is much discussed on the blogs this week. For the best article on the subject, we refer you to the, Feb. 22, 2007, Was 2006 a Turning-Point Election? On the Road to 2008, by Steve Fraser:

Why Does the Ancien Régime Die?

Rare as they are, one might ask why turning-point elections happen at all. Marking as they do the emergence of a new political order, they are, it seems, brought on by a general crisis in the old order, an impasse or breakdown so severe it can no longer be addressed by the conventional wisdom of the political status quo. The secession of the southern states in 1860 was, of course, such a crisis. So was the Great Depression. So, too, was the convergence of imperial defeat in Vietnam, the overthrow of the racial order of the ancien régime, and the de-industrialization of the American heartland. Secession, depression, defeat, these have been the "big bangs" ushering in new political universes.

System-wide crises prove fatal, first of all, because they exhaust the repertoire of political solutions available (or imaginable) to the ruling circles of the old order. Elites become increasingly defensive and inflexible, so much so that their actions aggravate rather than alleviate the crisis at hand. In the early years of the Great Depression, for example, Andrew Mellon, President Herbert Hoover's Secretary of the Treasury, suggested that the way out of the cataclysm was to "liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate." In doing so, he was falling back on the orthodoxy of his robber-baron ancestors and exposing not only the callousness of the old regime, but its incapacity to do anything constructive about the national calamity.

In the general spread of this atrophy, it should come as no surprise that Valley water politics would figure in it. Below, two articles discuss 1) the federal Bureau of Reclamation plan to privatize the San Luis Reservoir by giving it to Westlands Water District and partners; and 2) a plan to link that giveaway to restoring natural flows to the San Joaquin River devised by Rep. Devin Nunes of Visalia.

Members of the Friant Water Users Authority in Nunes' district reached a settlement last year on an 18-year-old lawsuit with environmentalists to restore the water they had been taking from the San Joaquin River, which had caused it to run dry for 50 miles, only to be filled farther downstream by agricultural wastewater. Nunes' opposition to this settlement has been intemperate -- but we are talking about water, so perhaps we should say, adamant, instead.

In any event, the Ancien Regime of Valley Water is relying on bedrock principle in its latest proposals for westside drainage (which poisoned Kesterson Wildlife Refuge), the Friant settlement and restoration of flows to the San Joaquin River: Steal the water!

Badlands editorial staff

The PCL Insider: News From The Capitol
Feb. 22, 2007


The Federal Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) announced last week that it had developed a new proposal to resolve the toxic water fiasco it created nearly fifty years ago when it began pumping water to agribusinesses in the western San Joaquin Valley.

The solution: (Drum roll please...)

Hand over federal assets and clean-up oversight to wealthy corporations!

(We thought you'd appreciate their logic).

Under USBR's proposal, ownership of the federally-owned San Luis Reservoir and accompanying water delivery facilities would be transferred to the Westlands Water District. Ownership of this Central Valley Project reservoir would mean increased water rights to Northern California rivers.

USBR would also agree to pardon Westlands for the remaining $490 million debt the District still owes for the construction of their water delivery system – money that has already been spent using taxpayer dollars.

Westlands, nominally a public agency, is the public face of 600 agribusinesses that use federally supplied water to irrigate 600,000 acres of farmland in western Fresno and Kings Counties.

Decades of intensive irrigation on these lands has flushed naturally-occurring toxic chemicals into nearby waterways and deformed large populations of migrating waterfowl. The federal government agreed to provide a solution to this chemical conundrum when it began providing water in the early 1960s, but they have yet to do so.

In return for the sweetheart deal now being proposed, Westlands Water District would relinquish 40,000 acre-feet of their annual water supply from San Luis Reservoir and absolve USBR of their responsibility to resolve the contamination problem. The latest cost estimate to physically engineer a solution is estimated at $2.6 billion. In other words, this forty-year-old environmental disaster would be under the supervision of the corporations, who are entirely reliant on the tainted fields for disposing of their subsidized runoff.

So, again, who benefits from this deal?

Representative Jim Costa (D-Fresno), whose district includes Westlands, believes that taxpayers will be the big winners if the lovers' pact proceeds. "It's not like the Bureau of Reclamation can just walk away from (its obligation to resolve the contamination issue). It's a far better deal for the taxpayers," Costa said in an article in the Contra Costa Times.

Seems almost too good to be true.

Here's what you're not hearing in the USBR proposal: If the federal government remained primarily liable for the clean-up of the contaminated lands, Westlands agribusinesses would still have to repay USBR to fix the toxics problem. So, the agribusinesses wouldn't really assume any new obligations. They would, however, receive ownership of one of the most important water facilities in the federal Central Valley Project, a mammoth public works project ostensibly owned by all U.S. citizens.

This isn't the first time Westlands' reputation has been tarnished for putting profit over ethics.

Last month, after announcing the purchase of 3,000 acres of land along the McCloud River that would be flooded under a USBR proposal to raise Shasta Dam, Westlands General Manager Tom Birmingham acknowledged that their "purpose in buying the property was only to ensure there would be no additional impediments if the Bureau of Reclamation concludes it's feasible to raise the dam."

Birmingham failed to mention that Westlands would be a primary benefactor from a taller Shasta Dam and that taking more water from Lake Shasta through the California Delta to Westlands Water District threatens the ecological health of the largest estuary in the Western Hemisphere. As owners of the San Luis Reservoir, Westlands would have right to more of that water secured by a taller Shasta Dam. San Luis is the main storage facility for Shasta Lake water after it flows southward from the Delta.

"This would be the first time that corporate agribusiness water contractors had water rights to North Delta water. It would certainly be an unprecedented turning point in California water history," points out PCL's Water Program Manager, Mindy McIntyre.

The Bureau of Reclamation is floating the concept paper of this proposal on Capitol Hill over the coming weeks. McIntyre and the rest of the PCL team will be keeping an eagle eye on this Valentine's Day deal. We'll keep you posted!

Fresno Bee
Feb. 21, 2007
Nunes sees one solution to two Valley water problems...Mark Grossi and Michael Doyle
The San Joaquin River connects two of California's major water problems now floating in isolation. On Tuesday, a San Joaquin Valley lawmaker suggested merging the two problems into one regional fix. One problem is restoring the river. The other concerns irrigation drainage in a region where the river once flowed. Separate lawsuits have lingered for years. Separate solutions finally are proposed for both. Perhaps, some say, it now makes sense to unify rather than isolate. But others aren't so sure. "There is not much evidence in the history of California water to support the idea that adding two hard issues together makes it easier to solve either one of them," attorney Tom Jensen cautioned Tuesday. "To the contrary." Nunes proposes linking this to the San Joaquin, by applying to river restoration the 100,000 acre-feet of water being given up for the drainage solution. He calls it win-win. Nunes disputes current congressional proposals to restore the San Joaquin River, and his latest offering may quickly fall flat for lack of allies. Most other Valley lawmakers, including Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, and George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, support the specific river plan he resists. Moreover, environmentalists who likewise support the river restoration plan are skeptical of a drainage solution transferring the water projects. Others fear losing their best chance at securing a San Joaquin River bill. All of which means that even if Nunes' solution fails, the next question becomes whether he succeeds in provoking discussion about another unified solution.