Thursday, December 29, 2016


Lupine and Poppies above Pine Flat Reservoir

     It's funny how the presentation of facts can be interpreted as hostile criticism. Consider the following:
     From time immemorial, snow melt has coursed down the slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, merging with rivers that flowed out through the delta and the bay into the ocean. The rivers periodically flooded the valley, overflowing into wetlands teeming with life. Much of the water in the wetlands would seep down into aquifers below, creating underground lakes of fresh water.
     Over a hundred years ago, farmers began draining the wetlands and cultivating the land. In the early twentieth century, farmers began over drafting the groundwater, so the government built dams and canals that killed most of the rivers, diverting about eighty percent of the water to farmers, who continued to grow many water-intensive crops in a region with chronic drought conditions.
     Even with all of the dams in California (about 1,400), farmers continue to over draft the groundwater, and the land continues to subside. Due to political clout, farmers in California, unlike in most other states, successfully avoided groundwater regulations until a few years ago. Wetlands are down to about four percent of their historical levels. Tainted by toxic chemicals, irrigation water percolates into the aquifers even as farmers did deeper wells to access what's left of the fresh groundwater.

Native American Village Site at Confluence of Kings River and Sycamore Creek:
Bottom of Pine Flat Reservoir in Drought Conditions

     One vast ecosystem extending from the foothills of the mountains to the San Francisco Bay is gone, and many plants and animals are threatened or endangered. Beds of ancient rivers have remained dry for decades even as water streams through diversion canals. The groundwater is becoming more and more polluted due to pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and defoliants. Many fields will be fallowed and some farming communities will very likely become ghost towns in the near future due to over pumping of groundwater.
     In the mountains, dams have destroyed many of the rivers' habitats. Near urban areas, few places remain that allow public access to pristine stretches of California's rivers. Due to over drafting of groundwater and the Valley's chronic drought conditions, farmers in the past two decades have fought for more dams on public lands. The public will pay the lion's share for them if they are built even as the public loses public parks and access to pristine stretches of river.
     As an environmentalist, I realize that this factual description can easily look like hostile criticism. My goal, however, is to work for sustainable industries and communities. When I began as an activist, I often witnessed how elected officials at public hearings vilified environmentalists, calling them anti-American or communist or anti-business, suggesting that citizens working for sustainable communities were actually nonconformist wackos, unpatriotic, irresponsible, unreliable and unemployable.
     In Requiem for the American Dream (available on Netflix), noted linguist and activist Noam Chomsky points out that in totalitarian societies this strategy has often been used to demonize and marginalize anyone who criticizes concentrated power. He states, “These concepts only arise in a culture, where, if you criticize state power, and by state, I mean, more generally, not just government, but state-corporate power—if you criticize concentrated power, you're against the society, you're against the people. And it's quite striking that it's used in the United States. In fact, we're the only democratic society where this concept isn't ridiculed, and it's a sign of elements of the elite culture which are quite ugly.”

No Man's Land: Pounding Stone in Friant Dam's Inundation Zone

     In a recent editorial in The Fresno Bee, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, and The Bee's editorial staff both resemble in no small way commissars who vilify any citizen who criticizes concentrated power. (Commissar: an official in a totalitarian government whose duties include political indoctrination, detection of political deviation and implementation of punishment to make its populace conform.) According to The Fresno Bee's editorial staff, Rep. Nunes in a “sophisticated” critique “cites environmental groups' hostility to farming as being a factor in the state's long history of failing to do the obvious and build more reservoirs and dams to hold more water from the Sierra snow pack.” Even as agribusiness maintains concentrated power through its influence on politicians, The Fresno Bee lauds a politician for using an ugly and distinctively unsophisticated totalitarian strategy to demean and marginalize citizens' groups working for a sustainable future. 
     Conservationists and environmentalist fight to protect what little is left, not from hostility but for the common good. The Bee and Rep. Nunes fail to recognize that there's a world of difference between criticizing unsustainable practices and being hostile. At this crucial time, the ag industry can maintain an openness to more sustainable ways of doing business for everyone's benefit or perpetuate the same destructive practices while, like many tyrants, relying on "commissars" to intimidate and villify people who disagree. Unfortunately, both Rep. Nunes and The Fresno Bee have chosen to use a strategy of the elite culture which is quite ugly.

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